What do struggling college students need? Predictability–not flexibility

Young people go to college to search for themselves, explore, experiment, discover a passion . . . Or perhaps to retake algebra, stumble through classes that won’t fulfill a major, go into debt and drop out without a credential.

Flexibility leads to failure for most students at unselective two- and four-year colleges, writes Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times. Colleges have decided that structure leads to success. Many are creating “guided pathways” that help students choose a direction and pick the right courses. “Colleges also monitor students’ progress closely and intervene when they go off track,” she writes.

The City University of New York’s Guttman Community College, which opened in 2012 with a guided pathways model, has a three-year graduation rate of 44 percent,  nearly triple the rate of similar colleges nationwide, she writes.

Students must enroll full-time; block scheduling enables them to hold part-time jobs. They choose from a limited number of majors and know which courses will get them to a degree. They choose from a limited number of majors and know which courses will get them to a degree.

“It’s actually predictability, not flexibility, that students need,” said Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia’s Community College Research Center and author of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.

In addition to block scheduling, strategies include encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester, advising new students to choose a field of focus or “meta major” and creating “cohorts” of students who take the same courses together.

Florida State raised its graduation rate by identifying core foundational courses that students must take at specific times to graduate in a major.

Also popular is “intrusive advising.” Advisors contact students “if they do poorly on a midterm, or sign up for a course that won’t bring them closer to graduation,” writes Rosenberg.

Redesigning college. boosting graduation rates

Georgia State discovered the cost of hiring advisors was more than covered by the rise in retention rates.

Limiting choice boosts completion rates.

At Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology, which offer one- or two-year certificates in skills such as machining, practical nursing or computer information technology, the graduation rate is 82 percent.

. . . A student who chooses aircraft mechanics knows she will be in school from 7:30 to 2:30 every day. Her program is set. Regular colleges can’t dictate a student’s courses for their whole time, of course, but many of the reformers do it for a student’s first year, and offer default or recommended schedules for subsequent years.

Tennessee has eliminated remedial prerequisites: Too few remedial students ever earned a degree.

Now remedial students take the normal college math or writing course, but alongside it, get extra workshops and tutoring.

. . . In the old system, only 12 percent of students who began in remedial math completed a college-level math class in their first year. Now 55 percent do. Writing success doubled.

Georgia is merging community colleges with state universities reports Sophie Quinton for the Huffington Post. Students who don’t get into Georgia State University are invited to enroll in Perimeter College, a former community college that was absorbed by the Atlanta university last year, she writes.

 Now that the two schools are one, students who attend classes on one of the five Perimeter College campuses can easily transition to complete a four-year degree at the university. Georgia State expanded its system for advising and tracking students to Perimeter College and used money saved through the merger to hire more people to counsel them.

Georgia’s first four college-university mergers are raising retention and graduation rates, while saving money.


An original version of this post appeared at joannejacobs.com

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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs

Joanne was born in Chicago and named after her grandfather, Joe Jacobs, who’d been a police reporter for the Omaha Bee-News. At the age of eight, she and her best friend became the creators and co-editors-in-chief of "The Wednesday Report" for four years. After years as a San Jose Mercury News columnist, Joanne started an education blog in 2001 and wrote "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds." She freelances for online sites, newspapers, magazines, foundations and think tanks. In addition to blogging at joannejacobs.com, Joanne writes Community College Spotlight at ccspotlight.org.
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