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.”

But what things, what services? That is the urgent question, and it has received close attention ever since President Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative in 2009, calling on community colleges in particular to boost their completion rates. Yet a burgeoning array of efforts to help struggling students over this or that hump has for the most part delivered disappointing answers. Despite lots of pilot programs that have produced small, short-term boosts (marginally more students passing remedial courses, or persisting for another semester), graduation rates so far have barely budged.

The program that enrolled Daquan McGee, ASAP, has proved to be a remarkable exception. Launched in 2007 with funding from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Center for Economic Opportunity, it is an unusually ambitious effort to propel low-income students through six of the City University of New York’s seven community colleges. ASAP’s architects set a goal that the program’s top administrator described to me as “insane”—a three-year graduation rate of 50 percent—and according to the university’s own data, the program has exceeded it. The social-policy research organization MDRC, which began an independent study of the program in 2010, calls ASAP’s record “unparalleled.” Researchers randomly assigned the study participants to either ASAP or the regular community-college track, and while three-year results won’t be ready until this summer, preliminary outcomes, just released, show the ASAP students to be dramatically outstripping the control group on every count—persistence, credits earned, and graduation rates. A third of the students who enrolled in ASAP in the spring of 2010 finished in two and a half years (compared with 18 percent of the control group). Nationwide, that’s the proportion of all community-college students who emerge with a credential in six years.

The secret of ASAP’s success lies outside the classroom. The program enlists extra tutors and caps some classes at 25 students, but otherwise doesn’t touch pedagogy. Instead it aims to counter the community-college culture of early exits and erratic stops and starts. ASAP is designed to instill, and make it possible to fulfill, the expectation that college will be a continuous, full-time commitment, just as it is for traditional, four-year students on leafy quads. Timing matters: miss out on getting a postsecondary credential by 26, and your odds of ever earning one drop.

ASAP offers lots of guidance, a dose of goading, and a variety of well-timed incentives to its participants (average age at admission: 21), who must sign on to the goal of graduating within three years. The program is intended primarily for low-income students with moderate remedial needs, and it accepts applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. (By next fall, ASAP expects to enroll more than 4,000 students.) The implicit philosophy behind the program is simple: students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course—daily, weekly, monthly—toward long-term success. Pushy parents, an asset many of them don’t have, could tell you what it takes to make that happen: a mix of enabling and persistent nudging.

Lesley Leppert-McKeever, who has directed the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s ASAP program from the start, summed up the message to students this way: “Look, if you do your part, we’ll do our part, and together we’ll be able to meet your target.” The program is a two-way deal, expressly designed to obviate the disruptions that sabotage academic momentum. Money problems are a prime cause of interruptions and delays, so if tuition isn’t fully covered by federal and state aid, ASAP pays the remainder. The program pays for summer- and winter-term courses, too. Books are provided on loan—a practical answer to the problem of students’ falling behind because they haven’t been able to buy their required texts promptly.

ASAP also distributes the monthly MetroCards that Daquan McGee lined up to get. It’s the perk, Leppert-McKeever told me, that many students initially say they like best about the program—even though plenty are also initially irked by its purpose: to prod them to make the most of the nonfinancial supports deemed good for them. These include the College Success Seminar and above all the biweekly advising sessions that are ASAP’s centerpiece. This guidance, which features a student-adviser ratio of about 120-to-1, is intended to preempt academic problems, or at least nip them in the bud, and it is mandatory—a blunt acknowledgment of the reality that “students don’t do optional.” That motto will be “engraved on my tombstone,” says Kay McClenney, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which conducts a national survey of student engagement that has become one of the most highly touted barometers of community-college success.

ASAP advisers presume that building habits of engagement takes concerted effort. It’s not just that students are stretched thin by family and work demands. Many also lack college-savvy guidance at home, or past school experience to draw on. More often than not, underprepared students have drifted through lousy schools “in a routine and superficial manner,” as the progressive educator Mike Rose puts it in his recent book Back to School. They haven’t been taught “how to use their mind in certain systematic and strategic ways, how to monitor what they’re learning and assess it.” Many don’t enter community college with clear intentions or high confidence: they’ve arrived at the bottom tier, and still it’s daunting.

During an open house for anyone considering the Borough of Manhattan Community College, I tagged along on a campus tour, and heard the guide tell the students in her wake, “It’s a monocracy, as in ‘monster bureaucracy’ ”—in other words, don’t expect helpful intermediaries. Staying on top of shifting general-education requirements, opaque transfer guidelines, and financial-aid complexities is not simple, even for the most-assured students. Nor is picking a major.

Leppert-McKeever explained her aim for the big one-room ASAP office she supervises, which overlooks the Hudson River: that it serve as a “home base” for students, many of whom—like lots of college students everywhere—have no idea where they’re headed, or how to get there. She and her staff of five advisers aspire to establish strong relationships with participants but to avoid excessive hand-holding as they help launch them on a major and fit the right classes into feasible time slots, which can be surprisingly difficult at many community colleges. “You have to be stern,” one adviser told me, “because with the goal of graduating in three years, there’s not much wiggle room.”

Nobody in ASAP, neither staff nor students, would say the path is smooth. Remediation in particular derails many a community-college student, even those with comparatively little catching up to do—so it was no wonder Daquan McGee’s adviser made sure they talked over the hurdles awaiting him in his freshman fall semester, in 2010. With algebra to get through, and a new baby due, McGee landed just what he didn’t need: a foreign instructor prone to snide comments such as “This is like one plus one.” But McGee, who emphasized to me how much he’d grown up in prison, had quickly gotten the ASAP message: you don’t quit; you figure out how to make it work, knowing your adviser has your back. The class felt mocked, he told the teacher, explaining that students like him, who’d missed out on good schooling, needed to make up for lost time. This kind of assertive self-advocacy, familiar to more-affluent students, was just what ASAP aimed to inculcate—and it worked. The instructor changed his style and McGee, who worked hard, excelled.

“I’m not having you drop out,” her adviser quietly insisted. “You need to be stronger, find that confidence in yourself.”

A strong start, though, is still just that: a start. ASAP’s design presumes that the bumps keep coming. I watched another student surprise her adviser with a sudden swerve at the beginning of a spring semester. She was struggling with an intermediate algebra prerequisite and two incompletes from the previous term, though she had seemed on top of her courses. She arrived at her advisory session and blurted out, eyes glistening, that she was on the brink of leaving. “I’m not having you drop out,” her adviser quietly insisted, telling the student she owed it not just to herself but to ASAP—and directing her to settle up with her fall professors immediately, before she missed a deadline, and to intensify her math tutoring. It was up to the student to follow through, but her adviser had armed her with a basic plan of action and brusquely warm assurances that of course she could do it: “You need to be stronger, find that confidence in yourself.”

ASAP’s structure and no-nonsense style invite accusations of paternalism—precisely what community colleges have been eager to avoid in the college-for-all era. Yet the prevailing model, a Chinese-menu-style panoply of options without any real guidance, has not empowered academically insecure students: it has failed them. Good information, well-structured expectations, timely counsel, confidence-instilling directives—these are essential ingredients of education, and they are all the more important for marginal students and for those blazing a trail to college for the first time in their family’s history. ASAP sets out to take students’ college goals seriously, and to help equip its participants to take those goals seriously as well. The program’s ethos of persistence is contagious. “There’s definitely a shift, different for every student,” Leppert-McKeever told me, “when suddenly an immature, unfocused student gets more serious.”

ASAP isn’t cheap—the program spends roughly $3,900 annually per student, on top of the $9,800 that the City University of New York community-college system spends on each of its full-time students every year—yet if you calculate expenditures per student who actually graduates, it saves money. The program isn’t cutting-edge either, except in delivering unprecedented completion rates. Scaling up such a comprehensive effort would be a challenge, and full-time college, of course, is never going to be for everyone. Yet at a moment when proponents of “disruptive” technology are promising a transformation of higher education, ASAP offers a different path, based on the premise that disruptions on the way to degrees are exactly what students at lower-tier schools need to avoid. If America is serious about being an opportunity society, Daquan McGee and students like him deserve the advantages of the old, steady way of going to college.