By Cassiopeia Paslick
In the summer of 2015 I dipped into the literature on various changes being proposed to the way we administer and teach at community colleges. The book that stood out for me as the most thoughtful and practical proposal for changes was Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, by Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, (2015, Harvard Press). The general proposal of the book involves implementing what the authors refer to as the “guided pathways” method of helping students begin and complete a community college degree.
Several books published over the last few years have discussed the extremely low degree completion rates for community college students. While over 10 million students enroll in community colleges each year, less than 40% of these students graduate with a degree or certificate within six years. The reasons for this are varied, but two have been well documented: Poorly prepared high school students spend years on remedial courses before they can even take a course that gives them college credit, and students accumulate credits that ultimately don’t apply to their degree because they don’t have clear goals when enrolling. In both cases, they eventually run out of resources (financial and emotional) and drop out of college.
The guided pathways proposal for increasing success rates for students would decrease the amount of choice students had during their first year of community college, and increase the amount of time they were in contact with faculty and counselors. Students would be required to identify degree and career goals in early counseling, and then be placed on a path of study that would lead them to that goal. The proposal still allows for students to change their minds, but the more integrated support from early and ongoing counseling would encourage this to happen earlier, and less often. Students would be required to frequently touch base with faculty or counselors, and the student support office would keep track of whether students were completing classes, and making progress toward their goal. This information would be available when counselors met with students, to allow concrete advice to keep students on track to graduate.
A survey completed by the authors of 150,000 community college students who were referred to a developmental math sequence found that only 30% of the students completed the developmental sequence in three years, and only 16% ever completed a college-level math course. Considering that about two-thirds of the students entering community colleges are not college-ready, remediation is a huge roadblock to student success. The authors consider the first year of community college as an on-ramp to to a program of study, and their proposal includes redesigning remedial education so that it is integrated into a student’s first year of coursework.
One successful method of integration has been implemented at The Community College of Baltimore County, where students who place into a higher level developmental writing course are encouraged to co-enroll in ENG 101 and an Advanced Learning Program. Each ENG 101 section accepts up to ten developmental students; the ALP course meets directly after their ENG 101 class, with the same professor. The professor uses this class period to help students master the skills they need to complete the assignments in the ENG 101 course.
While I am excited by the concept of competency-based learning (CBL), I believe that the guided pathways system would require less infrastructure change for community colleges, and therefore be easier to implement. I also feel that the guided pathways system would be most helpful to the often underprepared community college student. While the CBL model offers the support, I don’t think it offers the kind of in-depth guidance that community college students need in order to successfully complete two years of college that will amount to more than just a bunch of credits.
Of course, the guided pathways model would require a very large increase in student support. Embedding counselors in academic departments, so they could become experts in particular course sequences and have frequent conversations with faculty to monitor changes in curriculum is crucial to this model, which relies on seamless communication between faculty, counselors, and administrators. Students would need to have an ongoing conversation with the same counselor over their community college career; each meeting would need be long enough to encompass discussions about past performance, current issues, and future goals. At the end of two years, students should have learned enough through these meetings to successfully navigate and advocate for themselves while they complete their degree at their transfer institution. Most community colleges are lacking adequate student support personnel to handle the current “cafeteria style” model. The guided pathways model would require much more student support. It’s hard to see that happening in the current economic climate, where we measure the price of a college degree by the credit hour, rather than by the number of successful students.
Cassiopeia Paslick, PhD teaches geology and astronomy at Rock Valley College.