Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2017


Rethinking Community Colleges

By Julie Deardorff
Rethinking Community Colleges

While college access is growing, more than half of community college students fail to attain a credential within eight years, a shockingly low completion rate.

But if community colleges were better aligned with high schools, four-year colleges, and the workplace, students would see more success, said sociologist James Rosenbaum, professor of human development and social policy.

“Colleges can reduce the challenges of transitions by redesigning them, not making students adapt to them,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum’s research looks at the college-for-all movement, high- school-to-work transitions and connections between students, schools and employers. His upcoming book, New College Options, looks at improving success in transitions from high school and college to work.

Here he outlines three ways his research has helped institutions understand how transitions can be redesigned so students will be more successful.

High school to community college

THE PROBLEM: High schools and community colleges have different standards. High school students are tested, but the tests don’t reflect college readiness as determined by a college placement exam.

A FIX: Florida high schools have started giving the college tests to high school juniors, said Rosenbaum. “Suddenly the high school knows what they need to be teaching students and students know what they need to know when they get to college,” Rosenbaum said.

Reframing the tests has also helped. Florida students are required to take a catch-up course in 12th grade. While the same course in college is stigmatized as “remedial,” this course in high school is considered “college prep.” Locally, Evanston Township High School is in the early stages of offering transitional courses for community college-bound students.

Community college to four-year school

THE PROBLEM: A lack of centralization means community college students lose significant credit when they transfer. Illinois community college courses transfer as general education courses rather than into a specific major. Each major within a four-year college chooses which courses to honor. Students are expected to gather this information when transferring to four-year colleges.

A FIX: Harper College, a community college in northwest suburban Palatine, helps its students determine in advance which four-year colleges and majors will give them the most credit for their work and actively encourages them to attend those schools, Rosenbaum said.

“It used to be the students’ responsibility, but Harper has helped students learn which four-year colleges and which majors will recognize their Harper credits. Students are warned about colleges that don’t recognize their Harper credits, and they receive help finding better alternatives.”

Progress within the community college

THE PROBLEMS: Students can take courses that don’t add up to their major and degree requirements and may not even know what courses they need. A required course time slot conflicts with childcare or work schedule. Students also take courses that are too hard or too easy.

A FIX: City University of New York’s new Guttman Community College has been designed using some findings from Rosenbaum’s prior research. In particular, Guttman initially limits the students’ choice and has increased academic advising and support.

“A key insight for us was how unlimited choice doesn’t serve students well,” said Scott Evenbeck, Guttman Community College’s founding president. “Community college students typically pick out classes without real guidance and are a bit adrift. At our place, everyone takes the same city-centric, interdisciplinary curriculum that helps build skills in reading, writing, and quantitative reasoning. Students are very well served.”

Guttman offers five programs with highly specified courses, and the same group of students progress through the same courses for at least the first year. Courses are in the same time slots every term, so students don’t have to rearrange child care and work schedules. They receive frequent advising—rare in community college—because the students are often uncertain about what to do next and how to combine college with outside life demands.

“Educators like to offer students free choices, but we usually don’t make sure they make informed choices that create dependable progress,” Rosenbaum said. “The procedures at Guttman College are really quite impressive.”