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community college graduation rates
Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, believes community colleges need to jettison their “cafeteria model” to increase graduation rates.

The statistics from many community colleges are grim. Only about 39 percent of students who enter the country’s most accessible postsecondary institutions graduate within six years. A quarter of those who enroll in the fall don’t come back in the spring.

To boost the number of Americans with degrees, President Barack Obama has proposed making community colleges free. Tom Bailey, professor of economics and education and director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, supports the idea, but says it will have limited results if it’s not coupled with significant changes to the colleges themselves.

”We call this the cafeteria college: There’s a lot of stuff there, but students end up with a lot of wheel-spinning.”

Bailey is coauthor, with Shanna Smith Jaggers and Davis Jenkins, of the new book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. The Hechinger Report spoke with him about his proposals to get rid of the “cafeteria model” of community colleges, and how they can get improve.

Question: Why are graduation rates at community colleges so low?

Answer: When community colleges were first created, their goal was to open up postsecondary education to everyone, and they did that very well. They made it easy to enroll, and they offered many different courses and options. But it created a very complex system. There are lots of important decisions that need to be made and students are pretty much on their own. That’s why we call this the cafeteria college: There’s a lot of stuff there, but students end up with a lot of wheel-spinning. These are often students who don’t have parents or siblings who have gone to college, so you have a recipe for confusion, and people often get discouraged and fall away.

Q: So how should community colleges be restructured?

A: We need to pay much more attention to the college programs. They’re often designed course by course with no overall plan. The “defined pathway” that we’re talking about would create a default program, which would lay out semester by semester the courses a student needs to complete a degree.

It provides an easier way to understand sequence of courses. If you want to take other courses you can, but then you have to talk to somebody about that. It has to be part of a plan.

Related: Want higher-ed reform? You may be surprised where you’ll find it

Q: What about students entering with weak academic skills?

A quarter of students who enroll in community colleges each fall don’t return in the spring.

A: The model that’s used now is a set of prerequisite courses in English and math that presumably will build up the skills of a student so that they can be successful in any college-level course, but that hasn’t been effective.

What we’re saying is, let’s address your academic needs within the context of the program you’re in. Whatever learning needs are addressed as they come up, as opposed to a prerequisite program that often just acts as a barrier to students getting into college.

Q: Why doesn’t the current approach work?

A: Our research shows that many students who are put into remedial courses don’t need them and could be successful at college courses. And other students could be successful in college level classes if they got appropriate support.

Often students have to take two or three semesters of developmental classes and many of those students just go away. What this is doing is saying, you’re in college, you’re not in a vestibule. You have some academic weaknesses, but we’re going to work with you in your college-level courses, so you’re going to be progressing towards your goals.

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

Q: What about students who don’t know what they want to do yet?

A: What some places have done is to institute nine or 10 meta majors; you might not know you want to be a nurse, but you’re interested in the medical field. Or business. There are some basic courses in those fields that everybody takes. They don’t need to specialize that much.

Q: What about President Obama’s plan to make community college free?

A: I think that’s great. We’re all in favor of that program, but if it’s really going to be effective at getting students through college then I think it needs to be combined with other types of reforms. I think that financial burdens do prevent students from continuing, but I think the evidence about whether that alone will do it is much weaker.

Related: Critics question Obama’s free community college idea

Q: Would your plan cost more?

A: Our view is that some progress can be made with reallocation of funding without increasing costs but chances are that costs would have to increase some. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that if the colleges can do a better job then perhaps it’s reasonable to invest more in them.

Community colleges have the students with the most difficulties and they get the least amount of money per student. You can do this on the cheap and what you get is low completion, or you can spend a little more and get a better return on that. That may be more expensive per enrollment, but if you look at the cost per completion, it’s actually cheaper.

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