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Obama pitches community college plan
00:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in November. We’re resurfacing it in light of President Obama’s proposal to cover the cost of two year of community college tuition.

Story highlights

Community colleges are solving problems that plague all of higher ed

Schools have creative solutions to developmental education, completion and costs

CNN  — 

There’s no doubt that it’s a tough time for families pondering the value of a college degree.

On the one hand, there’s pitched debate over rising tuition costs and student debt. On the other, labor forecasts predict that by 2018, nearly two-thirds of American jobs will require a postsecondary certificate or degree.

Enter community colleges. They provide technical programs for emerging careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that are comparable to – if not better than – some of their four-year counterparts, at a fraction of the cost. Often, they’re the launchpad to baccalaureate programs for people without the time, money or academic skills to jump into a four-year program straight out of high school.

They got a boost in January when President Obama proposed America’s College Promise, a federal-state partnership program that would cover the remaining cost of two years of community college tuition after financial aid. The proposal would need to be approved by Congress but has sparked debate online with the hashtag #FreeCommunityCollege.

Already, some community colleges are updating their missions and shifting to serve the economy of the future as part of the American Association of Community Colleges’ 21st Century Initiative. Here are some of the ways they’re facing problems that weigh down all of higher education – and succeeding.

Developmental education: Preparing students for college

It was a problem at City University of New York just as it was at most schools: Students failed college classes for which they weren’t prepared or spent years working through remedial courses that ate into their financial aid before they even started earning credits toward a degree.

So in 2009, CUNY launched a pilot program for 141 students with GEDs. It pushed them through a packed semester of full-time study to catch up in reading, writing and math. By the end, students made gains that organizers called “astonishing.”

Does free community college work?

The pilot led to CUNY Start, which has since served more than 6,400 students. Nearly 70% of full-time Start students failed CUNY’s reading, writing and math assessment tests; after completing the Start program, 50% were proficient in all three areas, and an additional 31% were proficient in two.

“The outcome levels have been stupendous,” said Donna Linderman, university associate dean for student success initiatives at CUNY.

CUNY Start is designed for students who have high school diplomas or GEDs but need to get up to speed on reading, writing or math before attempting to earn credit toward a degree. Students can take an intense, 25-hour-per-week course to work on all three subject areas, or a part-time course to develop reading and writing or math.

The cost? Just $75.

CUNY Start is available on eight campuses, including six CUNY community colleges. It’s optional, and CUNY continues to offer traditional remediation courses for those who don’t want to take on the intense Start workload. But many students are sold on Start’s specially trained teachers, accelerated approach and low cost.

“Traditional remediation is just not working,” Linderman said. “If a college system was willing to make the investment in training – understanding you can’t just scale it up tomorrow – there’s room for it to be replicated.”

Completion rates: Having something to show for your time

Community colleges know they need to do a better job of leading students to a job or another level of education. U.S. Department of Education data (PDF) show that just 21.4% of community college students attained a credential at the same institution within six years. Of those who did not earn a degree, 32.3% enrolled at another school.

The problem is even more acute in schools with high populations of traditionally underrepresented students like the City Colleges of Chicago, where 98% of students come from low-income or minority backgrounds. For years, district completion rates held steady at 7%.

That began to change in 2010 with the arrival of a new chancellor, Cheryl Hyman, a City College graduate. Through Hyman’s Reinvention initiative, CCC has nearly doubled districtwide completion rates from 7% before 2010 to 13% in 2013.

It’s a work in progress, Hyman said. Success seems to come from working closely with students to create structured educational plans, or “pathways,” with the goal of finishing with credentials of “economic value.” That can mean encouraging one student to pursue a one-semester culinary certificate that leads to immediate employment while urging another toward an associate degree that meets prerequisites for nearby DePaul University, thanks to transfer agreements.

“We’ve refocused from being an institution that was solely focused on access to an institution that couples access with success,” Hyman said. “We have quantifiable, measurable goals to help students complete programs and move on to more school or a career.”

Kennedy-King College in particular has seen dramatic gains, raising its graduation rate from 8% to 26% in four years.

If there’s no demonstrable value to a course in the work force or as a transferable credit, the school won’t offer it, said Kennedy-King College President Arshele Stevens.

“We had students coming and taking a series of courses that may not have led anywhere,” she said.

Kennedy-King’s College to Careers program partners faculty and staff with corporations and businesses to tailor courses and credentials to meet job market demands in culinary and hospitality industries. It embraces the “pathway” approach to helping students chart an educational plan, which is paying off, Stevens said.

Underrepresented populations make up 94% of Kennedy-King’s student body; their completion rates are 42%, compared with the national average of 34%. And this year, preliminary achievements drew notice from the Aspen Institute, which named Kennedy-King one of 10 finalists in the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

Lowering costs: Making textbooks affordable

Florida’s Valencia College had long worked to keep tuition affordable, but only in the past few years did it take on another challenge: lowering the cost of textbooks.

The movement began with faculty members, said Kathleen Plinske, president of the college’s Osceola and Lake Nona campuses. They saw how students struggled through courses without expensive books – or struggled financially in order to buy them.

“To be able to save a tangible $75 or $100 is so meaningful,” Plinske said.

The strategy evolved to suit students’ needs and available technology. Faculty members took hard looks at their old go-to texts and sought less-expensive options. English faculty zeroed in on lower-cost books for their most popular courses, reducing costs for the greatest number of students. Meanwhile, math faculty members wrote their own book that addressed their needs exactly. They also adopted free software to generate practice problems instead of relying on a book to provide them.

Individuals and whole departments try to use e-books, rental books or older, used texts that still offer sound information. There are reserve copies of all class texts at the library. And for the first time this semester, students can see book costs and lab fees when considering what classes to add to their schedules.

It works because faculty members are on board and make it a priority, Plinske said. The results are clear: In 2013, the humanities and communications and math and science divisions at Valencia’s Osceola campus selected text books that cost students $124,065 less – and students have been just as successful, Plinske said.

“We’re willing to give things a try,” Plinske said. “Our faculty … are so very interested in providing the best learning experience, but very much in touch with the economic realities our students face.”

Job readiness: Getting skills you need

Community colleges are designed to meet the needs of communities by training skilled workers. But when timber and food processing industries in Walla Walla, Washington, were wiped out by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Walla Walla Community College shifted its philosophy to educate students based on emerging opportunities.

The school dumped its electrical programs so it could provide more courses in renewable energy, which supports the area’s growing stock of wind turbines. When data showed a need for more nurses in the region, the school expanded its facilities, doubled enrollment and filled more jobs.

The biggest return came from the creation of degree programs to support the region’s winemakers, even though there were no data showing a need for that kind of skilled labor.

“We operated on a hunch that we could help them develop an industry,” President Steven VanAusdle said.

Since then, the number of local wineries has grown from 16 to more than 170 and led to the creation of a robust tourist and hospitality industry with high employment and wages that outpace the regional average.

The key to the the community college’s success has been partnering with business and economic development leaders to create work-based, hands-on programs that meet labor market needs.

Constant follow-up and monitoring are also critical to student success, VanAusdle said. Students are required to see advisers each quarter until they prove themselves academically. Retention specialists reach out to students at risk of dropping out. Anyone educating or advising a student can access an online portal that tracks progress and identifies areas that need improvement.

Tracking students’ success after they leave Walla Walla is the best indicator of how well the programs work, VanAusdle said. They seem to be paying off in high rates of completion, employment and wages that can support a family.

“These innovative, entrepreneurial approaches are reinventing how we as community colleges achieve goals of student success,” he said. “Thinking more entrepreneurially will be extremely important to community colleges as we look to the next 10 years, and partnerships have to be at the center.”

Competency-based education: Building on existing skills

Many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan want degrees to help them find jobs as fast as possible that will pay a living wage. One way to cut down on seat time is by transforming their military experience into college credits.

In some schools, military basic training may equal college credits in a health care program. Elsewhere, military leadership training can get you closer to a business degree. Military cybertraining might count toward a computer science degree.

How to count military experience toward a degree remains a complicated national puzzle that includes pieces from government, the military and education groups. But experts say Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, has made significant progress.

GI Jobs Magazine has named it among the nation’s top 15% “military friendly” schools four years running, and it has been named a top school in the 2015 Military Advanced Education Guide to Colleges and Universities. The college, which enrolls about 1,000 veteran students per semester, receives invitations to share its solutions at educational conferences.

“For a long time, many other colleges wouldn’t recognize some of this training,” said registrar Nanci Beier. “Now, finally, a lot of other schools are starting to get on board.”

The school does a few things to make it work. For one, it works with the military to forge formal agreements to define training requirements and matches those parameters with school curriculum.

The school also hired dedicated staff to evaluate military training for how it can be transferred into college credits.

And the school offers veteran-to-veteran mentoring, which helps students improve their academic strategies.

Still, Anne Arundel is a rarity among schools, said Matt Randle, chief operating officer of Student Veterans of America.

Randle, an ex-Army combat medic, said schools that accept military training as credits, but don’t let students apply them toward a specific degree, are short-changing their students. They’re offering “Twinkie credits,” he joked, because the credits have “no nutritional value.”

“The problem is, most schools won’t be creative in the application of military training credit hours towards degrees,” he said.