BOSTON—December 18, 2014— A new national report released today by Jobs for the Future (JFF) says that a decade of interventions and improvements have fallen short because states and campuses have not taken large enough steps to address their biggest challenge—helping the 12.8 million students enrolled in community colleges earn postsecondary degrees and credentials to find good jobs.
Community colleges continue to take the spotlight as the most economical and powerful engine to upgrade the skills of the workforce and provide low-income students a pathway to postsecondary credentials and good jobs. But in spite of a decade of interventions and student support initiatives, the nation’s most disadvantaged adults and young people are not gaining traction towards degrees. Last month, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that while more first-time students entered college in 2008 than in 2007, the percentage that had completed a degree or certificate six years later actually dropped—from 56.1 percent of students who entered college in 2007 and completed in 2013 to 55 percent who entered a year later and graduated this year.
The new JFF report—Policy Meets Pathways: A State Policy Agenda for Transformational Change—says to address these challenges, campuses and states must do more than establish metrics for success, change transfer policies, provide better academic advising and support pilots targeting specific student subgroups. Community college campuses that serve 44 percent of low-income students, in particular, need to redesign pilot projects and ad hoc interventions introduced over the past decade into structured or guided pathways that reshape every step of the student experience, gearing all they do to the end goal of high-quality certificates, degrees, and good jobs. States must scale pathways across their systems to serve all students. Campus efforts are embedded all too often in state policy environments that are outdated, driven by the wrong incentives, or incompatible with colleges’ efforts. States need to redouble their efforts to modernize policies, and develop more effective approaches that support campuses and build capacity to strengthen implementation.
The broad-scale expansion of effective initiatives to serve low-income students, the report says, has been hindered by an implementation gap similar to that in K-12 education, where policymakers have underestimated the challenges in transforming instruction in schools. Too often, the report says, “policymakers have sought quick fixes, enacting big legislation without fully evaluating what needs to happen, or without providing adequate resources, building needed buy-in from key stakeholders, or acknowledging the progress already being made on the ground.” Some state actions have created changes that research has proven effective for students who are nearly college-ready, for example, but not for those with deeper academic needs.
“State leaders have pulled a lot of policy levers—setting goals, monitoring progress and demanding accountability—but now it’s time to intersect more closely with the needs of educators and campus leaders,” says Lara K. Couturier, program director of postsecondary state policy for Jobs for the Future and author of the report. “Institutions need to operate in a policy environment that helps them introduce comprehensive and integrated reform strategies that change every aspect of what they do—from admissions and instruction to student services and workforce preparation—to increase the percentage of low-income students who earn degrees and find jobs that pay a living wage.”
The report’s findings largely emerge from studying efforts by nine colleges and three state organizations that have participated in the Completion by Design initiative in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio (see attached list) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. On many of these campuses, orientation to college includes an assessment of a student’s career interests and academic and non-cognitive needs. Students choose and enter streamlined, coherent academic programs organized around specific program pathways—a set of courses that meet academic requirements across a broad discipline grouping such as health sciences, business, or education—with clear learning goals aligned with further education and/or a career. The colleges clearly map out students’ routes through college, provide intensive academic and non-academic counseling and supports, and monitor student progress. While gaps and challenges remain, the three states are working with their colleges to build a supportive policy environment around these efforts. (See executive summary about model state efforts.)
Recommendations for state action: DesignForScale
The report challenges national leaders, state officials, and system heads to “put efforts to bolster completion on a new trajectory” by analyzing the extent to which state policies support the colleges that are trying to do right by their students, and then by designing policies and interventions meant to serve large percentages of low-income and nontraditional students. Key policy priorities need to, in JFF’s words, “design for scale,” tackling thorny policy issues, by:
- Streamlining program requirements and creating clearly structured programs of study to help students gain traction toward degrees rather than be stymied by an overwhelming array of course options, unclear program requirements and a lack of guidance.
- Encouraging colleges to redesign developmental education into accelerated on-ramps to programs of study that include strong advising, student entry into program streams or meta-majors with developmental education courses relevant to that stream, as well as comprehensive “wraparound” services that provide everything from counseling and financial literacy to supplemental instruction.
- Supporting colleges in developing and implementing a suite of research-based, wraparound student support services that propel students through to completion, including redesigned student intake procedures, comprehensive advising with integrated career counseling, early alert systems, and program mapping.
- Ensuring that structured pathways lead to credentials and durable competencies that allow students to build on their skill sets, continuously adapt to the fast-paced and constantly evolving global economy, and access robust career opportunities.
- Supporting colleges’ strategic use of data, with a particular focus on creating statewide data systems that monitor students’ progress from postsecondary education into the labor market. State efforts also should build the capacity of institutions to use student data and real-time labor market information.
- Investing professional development dollars in statewide structures that create intensive, authentic faculty engagement and link college completion to a deeper focus on teaching and learning.
The report also calls on states to develop state-level structures that encourage these scaled-up improvements, including a self-assessment process for colleges to review institutional policies and practices, support for authentic faculty engagement, and new Student Success Centers that encourage collaboration within and across states and provide opportunities for faculty development and stakeholder involvement in decision making. (See executive summary and report for more detailed recommendations.)
To help accelerate progress, JFF will work with states and campuses to advance these changes through its DesignForScale initiative.
The report, Policy Meets Pathways, is available online at www.jff.org/publications