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How Do We Get More Community College Students to Graduate?

How Do We Get More Community College Students to Graduate?

President Obama tells us that by 2020, we need an additional eight million more Americans to graduate from college. The pressure is now on for community colleges to deliver.

This is the time of year Inver Hills Community College Vice President Barbara Read stands in the door of the admissions office and greets new students with a four-word question: “What is your goal?”

The question goes to the heart of the Minnesota college’s five-year-old “Finish What You Start” effort to improve retention, completion and transfer rates. Whether a student is there to earn credits before transferring to a four-year university, or for an associate’s degree or a certificate, Inver Hills has a message.

“From recruitment all the way through to graduation, we want students to know we’re the place that will help you finish what you start,” said Read, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at the 40-year-old college in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. “It’s a mantra and an opportunity to build a campus-wide spirit.”

The program includes “learning communities,” where the same group of students take two or three classes together that are often linked around common themes or questions. This program, along with condensed remedial (also known as “developmental”) classes, is helping students stay in school throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, the fifth-largest of its kind in the nation, with 25 community and technical colleges and seven universities.

The new efforts in Minnesota come at a time when three-year completion rates at two-year public colleges in the U.S. have remained at just under 30 percent in the last decade. However, the number of students sticking with school after their first year is at an all time high, according to Wes Habley, principal associate at ACT, Inc., the nonprofit organization offering educational and workplace measurement and research services.

One reason for the increase in first-year retention rates is the downturn economy and high unemployment rate, Habley said.

“Historically, when unemployment increases, so does college enrollment,’’ Habley said. “It is likely that more students are opting for community college because of lower costs than four-year counterparts. And, it is likely that more students stay at community colleges in the absence of employment opportunities or as an alternative to transferring to a more expensive four-year college.”

Efforts like those underway in Minnesota and several other states are also making a difference, said Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City. “There’s a flowering of innovation, new philanthropy and funding and a new conversation. There is much greater attention to being more intrusive in the lives of community college students…it’s a sea-change, and an acknowledgement that graduation counts.”

President Barack Obama’s oft-stated goal of getting more Americans to complete college and get a degree is one motivating factor for schools, said Jim Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. Jacobs also attributes higher retention rates to the caliber of students who may be choosing community colleges over four-year institutions to save money.

In Minnesota, several two-year colleges are also responding to a statewide accountability push and a commitment to national efforts like Complete College America as they roll out student-success programs.

In the last year, MnSCU’s first to second-year retention rate has started to budge, rising two percentage points, said Leslie Mercer, MnSCU’s associate vice chancellor for research, planning and effectiveness. In 2006, Minnesota’s retention rate was 26th in the nation.

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