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Researchers Rethink Community College With Clearer Student Pathways

To help more students succeed in community college, researchers suggest high schools do more career advising so students start out with a better idea of what they want to pursue.

Too often, students enroll not knowing what they want to study and don't find enough support on campus to give them a focus that leads to completion, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, one of three authors of the new book, Redesigning America's Community College, to be released in April by Harvard University Press.

"The high school-college partnership is really important to make stronger and deeper," said Jaggars, the assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, "to try to make the transition from high school to college smoother for students, to make it more clear to them what they are going into."

On community college campuses, the approach is "self-service" where students pick and choose courses often without an overall plan, said Jaggars. Faculty members are focused on their own courses and it's difficult to get them to connect with others on campus to serve and support students, she said.

After studying community college reform for 20 years, CCRC has seen many promising practices but only mild, positive, long-term impact from many of the efforts. "A lot of time, idealism, and passion have gone into these reforms, and to see them not moving the needle [with completion] all that much is very disappointing," said Jaggars in a phone interview.

So researchers looked closely at nine strategies to improve student success, such as accelerating developmental education or online learning, and assessed their effectiveness. Rather than incremental pockets of improvements in a narrow area, the authors suggest colleges try many things together to make fundamental changes.

Among their recommendations: provide clearer curricular pathways for areas of study, get faculty more actively engaged in supporting the overall success of students, and set up early-intervention systems to keep students on track. Community college representatives should also visit high schools to explain their offerings (including dual enrollment), convey their academic expectations, and help develop transition curriculum so seniors can spend their last year of high school making sure they are ready to meet college standards, said Jaggars.

With President Obama's recent proposal to fund two years of community college tuition, Jaggars said community colleges are both pleased to have the national attention but also under increased scrutiny to improve student outcomes. Last year, most states reported a drop in community college completion rates, according to a survey last month.

"The time is ripe for reforms," said Jaggars.  "Colleges need to think about becoming more integrated, more structured, intentional institutions."

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