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college graduation rates
(President Barack Obama greets the crowd at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., Tuesday, July 14, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the percentage of Americans with college degrees is running into some of the same stubborn obstacles that have stymied educators, politicians, researchers and philanthropic foundations for years.

While a few efforts have succeeded in identifying barriers to graduation, research shows that they have yet to bring widespread improvement.

Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping more community-college students succeed, began seven years ago with pilot programs at 26 community colleges, and has since expanded to 160. The program has cost more than $76 million, but a review released in February by the social-policy research organization MDRC found there has been no increase in graduation rates as a result.

“We have not found any magic bullets,” says Thomas Brock, MDRC’s director of policy for postsecondary education. “The budget-cutting and the difficulty students are having getting into classes—those are pushing back against the goal.”

Carol Lincoln, senior vice president at Achieving the Dream, concedes that raising graduation rates “is like turning a 700-ton ship. People expect quick fixes. But we’re talking decades in terms of significant results across the board.”

college graduation rates
Thomas Brock

The graduation problem isn’t generally evident at elite colleges and universities, both private and public, whose graduation rates are comparatively high. It’s concentrated at community colleges and lower-tier public universities, which enroll most of America’s students. Such institutions increasingly serve the fastest-growing segment of American college enrollment: low-income, nonwhite, non-native-English-speaking students who are the first in their families to go to college.

Community colleges enroll much higher percentages of students who work full or part time and are considered at risk for dropping out—and who are also more likely to have children at home and have interrupted their education, in some cases for years.

In addition, the vast majority arrive unprepared for college-level work, with 60 percent or more steered into remedial education, according to Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“They don’t have money, they’re working, they’re the people who are least likely to afford the tuition increases,” says Stan Jones,  president of Complete College America, a national nonprofit working to increase the number of Americans with a college degree or credential. “We have a lot of work to do so that we don’t fail them.”

Community colleges will have to “engage in broad institutional reform” to increase the number of students who earn degrees and certificates, according to a series of papers published this year by the Community College Research Center.

Improving graduation rates, Brock says, remains “a long-term process. A lot of colleges have made small changes, mostly as pilot programs, to come up with better strategies for serving students, but what has been lacking is really systemic change.”

Still, says Brock, “there is momentum. A lot of institutions are focused now on this.”

Here’s a look at some recent efforts:

  • ASAP—The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs waives tuition for needy students, gives them free subway passes and textbooks, and ensures smaller classes. It requires full-time study, and provides advisors and career counselors to improve completion rates. In a pilot program involving some 300 students in six community colleges, 30 percent earned their associate degrees within two years, and nearly 60 percent did so within three years. (By comparison, just 12 percent of students who weren’t in the program got their associate degrees within two years, whereas 24 percent did within three years.) CUNY is opening a brand-new community college next year that will offer such support to all of its students.
  • Zane State College in Ohio added advanced courses along with a special counseling program for new students after discovering it was losing not only its lowest-performing students but also its highest-performing ones. It saw as much as a 24-percent increase in the number who finished their first year.
  • College of the Ouachitas in Arkansas changed its culture from recruiting students to fill seats to making sure they earned their associate degrees once there. The proportion of students there who graduate within three years has increased from nine percent in 2001 to 25 percent this year.
  • Northern Virginia Community College, where Jill Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden, teaches, increased its three-year graduation rate by four percentage points for first-time, degree-seeking students. NOVA’s three-year graduation rate went from 12 percent in 2006-07 to 16 percent in 2009-10. The school attributes its success to a program called the First Year Experience, which provides students with early advising, orientation, learning communities, peer mentoring and social events.
college graduation rates
Tristan Wright-Crishon, a student in the popular Accelerated Study in Associates Program (ASAP), works in a music technology lab at Queensborough Community College.

“We are beginning to see examples of community colleges that, through focused effort sustained over time, are ‘moving the needle’ on student progress and success indicators,” says Kay McClenney, who directs the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and teaches in the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Typically that begins with the shorter-term outcomes—successful course-completion rates and persistence from term to term, for example—and then, ultimately, to increases in rates of completion of associate degrees and certificates.”

McClenney warns that it can be a frustratingly long process to see results. “It is going to take time for the sector as a whole to show improvement in graduation rates because of the millions of students the colleges are working with,” she says. “Nonetheless, once we begin to see large, diverse, under-resourced institutions showing these results, it both raises hopes about what is possible and removes excuses for settling for the status quo.”

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, also says he is seeing “the needle moving in the right direction. We’re starting to execute many of the strategies we’ve learned that work.” Still, the AACC has said that Obama’s 2020 graduation goal will not be reached unless resources are “significantly increased.”

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