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Updated: Administration Holds Community College Symposium Today

As promised at last fall's White House Community College Summit, the administration is continuing to focus on this oft-overlooked sector of higher education with a virtual symposium from 2-5 p.m today.

The event will be held at Montgomery Community College's Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus in Maryland and streamed live online. You can register here, and a link to the webcast will be sent to all registered participants.

The administration has held four regional meetings at community colleges since the October summit. Today's event will present findings from those gatherings, focusing on four areas: promoting college- and career-readiness among low-skilled workers; aligning secondary and postsecondary career technical education; improving the effectiveness of developmental education to meet the diverse needs of learners; and establishing partnerships between employers and community colleges that align curriculum and instruction with workplace realities.

Speakers will include Jill Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Education Undersecretary Martha Kanter, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard, and other higher education leaders.

Update 6:25 p.m.
Students who enter community college without a clue of what they want to do are less likely to succeed than those who enter with a clear program focus. Helping students consider their strengths and interests early on was one of many strategies to boost college completion discussed among experts at the symposium today.

Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said students are often confused by the multitude of choices and there aren't enough resources on campuses to advise them. "We need to work on how to help students figure out what they want to do," he said. "We don't focus enough in getting students anchored in a field of study. If they don't get anchored early, sometimes they never do."

When students enter on a general education track, they are forced to take a full sequence of remedial programs that they may not necessary need. Too often, they then become discouraged and don't make it. Success rates for students who are in developmental education courses are much lower than for others, Bailey added.

To address that, colleges need to make the system easy to navigate, improve alignment with high schools, support summer bridge programs, and work to reduce the need for remediation, the panelists said.

While nearly two-thirds of students enroll in some kind of postsecondary education within two years of high school, after one semester of college many drop out and less than 30 percent earn an associate degree in three years, said Katherine Hughes of the CCRD in New York. To improve these odds, she suggested the need for fostering clear pathways from high school to college. "There needs to be a shared understanding of what it means to be prepared," she said.

Bailey said having college faculty work with high school teachers is "absolutely essential," and more are bridging that divide. Yet the two systems have very different legacies, and it's a challenge to figure out how to force collaboration. "I don't think states can legislate that alignment alone. I don't think a top-down strategy will work," he said. Rather, it's going to take both systems moving in the direction of cooperation at the same time and adopting policies to encourage that, Bailey said.

When systems have different funding streams and incentives, it is challenging, but there are pockets of progress, the panelists noted. Some high schools are pushing students toward college through dual-enrollment programs. Colleges are going into the high schools to administer early-assessment tests so students can get up to speed with skills before graduation. And some colleges provide data back to high schools on their students in remedial education to red-flag areas in need of improvement.

Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter said she is encouraged by new regional consortia, such as one in northwest Indiana where high schools are consulting with the local university and community college to target curriculum toward college readiness.

To get funding for collaborative initiatives, Bailey said advocates need to make the argument—and have the evidence—to show that it's actually saving money in the long run by helping students succeed. "We need to be creative about where we get resources ... and ultimately show what is effective," he said.

When it comes to developmental education, the panelists discussed the importance of programs that are individualized and compressed to get students through quickly. Also, campuses that integrate remedial students into credit classes, with supports and tutoring, have shown success.

While scattered initiatives are demonstrating promise, colleges need to adopt widespread changes to affect change, the panelists said. Bailey said he is encouraged by the amount of experimentation happening at community colleges and the progress being made in innovative models with developmental education and student success.

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