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A Study Offers a Caution on Obama's Community College Pitch

In his State of the Union address last night President Obama reiterated his longstanding support for community colleges, calling them "a career pathway to the children of so many working families." He may be right about that. But, as I reported in this story back in September, the research on community colleges suggests they can also be a dead-end for students who get bogged down in noncredit remedial courses and never earn a certificate or a degree.

A new study out this month, however, suggests that community colleges could take a cue from for-profit, or career, colleges. The Educational Policy Institute, a research group in Virginia Beach, Va., based its study on a federal data on nearly 7,000 higher education institutions, 41 percent of which were career colleges, as well as its own surveys.

It focused on students who were at risk of not graduating for a variety of reasons, including lack of a high school diploma, delayed enrollment, enrolling part-time, being a parent, or holding down a full-time job, and found that they stood a better chance of completing a degree or a certificate in a career college than they did in a community college. The career colleges had an average graduation rate of 59 percent for this group, compared to 23 percent for public two-year colleges and 55 percent at private, not-for-profit institutions. (A grain of salt here: the study was sponsored by a group that supports career colleges.)

Part of the problem may be that community colleges are asked to be all things to all people. They provide a stepping stone to four-year colleges, vocational training, and English-language instruction for new immigrants, among other services. In my September article, James Rosenbaum, a Northwestern University researcher, offers some additional thoughts.

"Community colleges are big on choice exploration, delaying decisions about your major, and getting a lot of diversity in your first studies," he said. "Private two-year colleges help students make a decision quickly at the outset and then have a very set curriculum. You don't make mistakes. You don't waste time, and it doesn't take you longer to get a degree." He said the private two-year schools also cut out vacation time, schedule classes in ways that are more compatible with maintaining a regular work or child-care schedule, and mandate student-counseling sessions.

It's something to keep in mind, at least, as Congress debates legislation that would make sweeping changes to the federal student loan program and redirect money from the projected savings to bolstering community colleges, among other education-related uses.

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