Community colleges are good at helping students who have a clear sense of direction. But the sprawling, underfunded campuses often offer little guidance for those who don't know what they want to study, or what to expect from college. Improving on-campus advising could become an imperative for two-year schools if the Obama administration's proposed college-ranking system ends up rewarding institutions for graduating students on time.
Software developed by Washington research and consulting company Education Advisory Board has helped four-year schools like Georgia State University increase graduation and retention rates. As the company tries to develop a similar product for two-year schools, it finds itself up against a much bigger challenge.
"We actually think that the moment where education is imperative, and currently lacking, is at the very beginning of a student's life cycle at an institution—really the intake process," says Sarah Zauner, research director of the Education Advisory Board's community college forum. The proposed tool would encourage students to define their goals, and then alert them when they veer off track.
Only 20 percent of first-time students enrolled full time at public two-year colleges obtain an associate's degree in three years, according to federal statistics. That metric doesn't figure in the students who transfer to four-year colleges, those who earn certificates, or the 59 percent of students who attend part-time. But it's clear that many students who enroll in two-year colleges don't reach the finish line.
Part of the challenge is that community colleges offer a wide range of programs to a wide range of students. Community colleges serve everyone from teens seeking college credits to working adults pursuing a credential that will get them promoted. Some students enroll ready for college-level work, while others must take developmental courses to catch up.
Between 1995 and 2009, 70 percent of new Hispanic and African-American college students headed to two-year colleges and open-access, four-year institutions, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Forty-four percent of community-college students are nonwhite, and in 2011-12, community-college students received 37 percent of federal Pell grants.
Two-year schools deliver this breadth of courses to this diverse student body on a minimal budget. The average public research institution spent about three times as much per student as the average community college in 2010, according to the Delta Cost Project. The ratio of students to advisers at the typical community college is 1,000 to 1.
Students are expected to largely figure things out on their own. "A lot of community-college students end up taking courses that don't count, either toward their degree in the community college, or, if they want to transfer somewhere, that their transfer school's not going to accept," says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College at Columbia University.
That's a huge problem when students are dependent on Pell grants, which have a lifetime maximum. "There are major consequences to making poor decisions on what courses you're going to take," Jaggars says. Students who switch to a totally different major may have to drop out.
For four-year schools, the Education Advisory Board has developed a Web-based product that alerts advisers when students fall off-course for on-time graduation. Advisers are immediately told when a student fails to sign up for a required course, risks losing financial aid, or earns a low grade in a course foundational to his or her chosen major. Georgia State invested in the student tracking tool and hired 42 more advisers, to increase the school's ability to intervene at the first signs of trouble among its undergraduates.