How to Escape the Community-College Trap

More than half of community-college students never earn a degree. Here's how to fix that.
Mike McQuade

When Daquan McGee got accepted to the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the spring of 2010, he was 19 and still finding his footing after a two-year prison sentence for attempted robbery. He signed up for the standard battery of placement tests in reading, writing, and math; took them cold; and failed two—writing and math. Steered into summer developmental education (otherwise known as remediation), he enrolled in an immersion writing course, which he passed while working full-time at a Top Tomato Super Store. Then McGee learned of a program for which a low-income student like him might qualify, designed to maximize his chances of earning a degree. At a late-summer meeting, he got the rundown on the demands he would face.

McGee would have to enroll full-time in the fall, he was told; part-time attendance was not permitted. Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for a monthly drill: lining up in one of the long hallways in the main campus building to receive a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.

In a hurry to make up for his wasted prison years, McGee signed up. The pace, as he’d been warned, was fast from the start, and did not ease up after the fall. Through the spring semester and on into his second year, his course load remained heavy, and the advisory meetings continued, metronomically. He was encouraged to take winter- and summer-term classes, filling in the breaks between semesters. McGee, a guy with a stocky boxer’s build, doesn’t gush—he conveys low-key composure—but when I met him in October of 2012, early in his third year, he had only praise for the unremitting pushiness, and for the array of financial benefits that came along with it. The package was courtesy of a promising experimental initiative that goes by the snappy acronym ASAP, short for Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. Last winter, McGee graduated with an associate’s degree in multimedia studies. It had taken him two and a half years.

In the community-college world, McGee’s achievement is a shockingly rare feat, and the program that so intently encouraged him to accomplish it is a striking anomaly. The country’s low-cost sub-baccalaureate system—created a century ago to provide an open and affordable entry into higher education to an ever more diverse group of Americans—now enrolls 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, many of them part-time students. But only a fraction ever earn a degree, and hardly anyone does it quickly. The associate’s degree is nominally a two-year credential, and the system is proud of its transfer function, sending students onward to four-year schools, as juniors, to pursue a bachelor’s degree—the goal that 80 percent of entrants say they aspire to. Reality, however, typically confounds that tidy timeline. In urban community colleges like the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent. Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.

Behind these dismal numbers lie the best of intentions. Community colleges have made it their mission to offer easy access, flexibility, and lots of options to a commuter population now dominated by “nontraditional” students. That’s a catchall label for the many people who don’t fit the classic profile of kids living in dorms, being financed by their parents. Nearly 70 percent of high-school graduates currently pursue some kind of postsecondary schooling, up from half in 1980. The surge is hardly surprising: higher education, over the past three decades, has become a prerequisite for a middle-class life. But of course, as the matriculation rate has climbed, so has the number of students who enter college with marginal credentials and other handicaps. The least academically prepared and most economically hard-pressed among them are typically bound for community college, where low-income students—plenty of them the first in their family to venture beyond high school—outnumber their high-income peers 2-to-1. Many of these students are already juggling jobs and family commitments by their late teens (McGee and his longtime girlfriend had a baby daughter in the fall of his freshman year). This could hardly be a more challenging population to serve.

The bet public community colleges have made—that the best way to meet the needs of their constituents is by offering as much flexibility and convenience as possible—makes a certain intuitive sense in light of such complications. So does a commitment to low cost. Give students a cheap, expansive menu, served up at all hours; don’t demand a specific diet—that’s not a bad metaphor for the community-college experience today.

If anything, with enthusiasm rising for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the higher-education pendulum is now swinging further in this direction. The current interest in “competency-based learning”—liberating students to earn degrees not by amassing credit hours but by preparing for assessments of particular skills at whatever pace and by whichever route they choose—is part of the same trend. Some reformers see the seeds of a revolution in college education, promising ultraconvenient, self-guided, low-cost courses of study for everyone. The “beginning of the unbundling of the American university” is how one observer has described the transformation. All it will take for students to avail themselves of this emerging opportunity is a clear sense of where they’re headed, lots of self-motivation, and good access to information about what mix of skills is likely to lead to a promising career. And therein, of course, lies the problem.

If you stop and think about it, the existing postsecondary educational hierarchy could hardly be more perverse. Students at the bottom, whose life histories and social disadvantages make them the most likely to need clear guidance and structure, receive astonishingly little of either. Meanwhile, students at the super-selective top, prodded toward high ambitions and disciplined habits by attentive parents and teachers ever since preschool, encounter solicitous oversight every step of the way.

Take Harvard, where the rising elite chart their paths within well-designed parameters: the college offers a bachelor’s degree in 48 academic fields only to full-time, residential students, who must also fulfill carefully articulated general-education requirements. Their first-year experience unfolds under the supervision of an entire team—a freshman adviser, a resident dean of freshmen, a proctor, and a peer-advising fellow. Residential house tutors and faculty advisers lend support later. Compare that with nearby Bunker Hill Community College, as Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has done. Students there choose from upwards of 70 full-time or part-time associate’s-degree or certificate programs, in more than 60 fields, then figure out their ideal course load, and how to best mix online and in-person classes. As to plotting a course of study and then staying on it, community-college students are largely on their own. Student-adviser ratios in the two-year sector are abysmal in many schools: they can run as high as 1,500-to-1. And while spending per student has risen over the past decade at every kind of four-year institution—private, public, research, undergraduate—it has remained all but flat in public community colleges.

Students who are most likely to need clear guidance and structure receive astonishingly little of either.

A surer formula for widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots—at least while still paying lip service to ideals like opportunity and meritocracy—would seem difficult to devise. And the self-paced, modular ideal of college education championed by some tech enthusiasts is unlikely to bridge that gap. Consider the experience of Sebastian Thrun, a MOOC pioneer. His online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course—which attracted more than 150,000 students in 2011—worked superbly for the Stanford students who went the high-tech route instead of attending Thrun’s lectures. And it proved effective for the well-educated and self-disciplined participants all over the world who finished it. (MOOCs, so far, have notoriously high attrition rates.) But a recent Thrun venture at the other end of the spectrum is more relevant. Partnering with San Jose State University, Udacity, the company Thrun co-founded in the wake of his initial success, offered three online math courses, one remedial and two introductory. Pass rates were well below those in normal classes, as research into online courses at community colleges might have predicted they would be. A recent study suggests that in general, the weakest community-college students fare the worst in the shift away from face-to-face classes. Thrun quickly absorbed the lesson. A “MOOC alone is not likely to be a good educational medium for large numbers of people, except for the truly highly self-motivated,” he told a reporter this summer. “To be successful, we need people on the ground to do things, to provide educational services.”

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Ann Hulbert is The Atlantic’s books-and-culture editor. She reported this piece while on a Spencer Fellowship at the Columbia Journalism School.

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