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A Promising Community College Remediation Program

This post also appeared on our sister blog,Ed Money Watch.

Community college advocates had high hopes for the president’s American Graduation Initiative, a proposed $12 billion program to strengthen these accessible institutions of higher education. A full year after the President’s proposal, Congress finally passed a major higher education reform bill in March, but only $2 billion was included for community colleges, far less than earlier versions of the legislation. Moreover, the final bill didn’t include the new funding streams to stimulate state policy changes and improve student outcomes like college persistence and graduation rates that had been part of the President’s proposal and initial congressional drafts.

To be sure, the $2 billion in funding for community colleges is a welcome source of support for these struggling institutions, but it won’t have much of an impact on policy. Although President Obama’s goal to produce five million more community college graduates by 2020 is still intact, cash-strapped states are not in a position to increase investments in their community college system and without an influx of federal dollars, they will have little incentive to adopt needed policy reforms. For the time being, individual colleges will need to work to improve outcomes within existing policy and funding constraints.

Community colleges are struggling with more than just shrinking budgets. Across the nation, they are grappling with increasing numbers of students who are not well-equipped to succeed in college for a variety of reasons: poor K-12 preparation, little college expertise at home, financial obstacles, competing work responsibilities, transportation and child care issues. In some places in the country, very large proportions of community college students need extra help and support. (In California, for example, 84 percent of entering community colleges students can’t do college-level math and 70 percent need remediation in English.) In other parts of the country, the numbers are somewhat less severe but the problem no less urgent.

Many community colleges are trying new things to address the problem of underprepared students: learning communities and support groups, new models for providing tutoring, more intensive academic counseling, and more. There’s too little data and evidence to say with certainty what works best (and “what works” may vary substantially given the context and student population). Still, it’s clear that community colleges on the whole are not having a great deal of success with underprepared students—one credible study has found that just 30 percent of community college students finish a remedial math sequence once they’ve started it and fewer than 25 percent make it all the way to a college degree. So when something appears to be working, it’s worth a closer look.

One community college that’s showing some positive returns is Northern Virginia Community College, better known as NOVA (also the college where Jill Biden teaches and the site where President Obama signed the health care and education reconciliation act on March 31). Five years ago, NOVA launched an innovative program called Pathway to the Baccalaureate aimed at supporting first-generation college-goers and other “at-risk” college students who might have trouble navigating the path from high school to community college and into a 4-year college or university.

As we describe in a new report released today, NOVA’s Pathway program appears to be finding success with students in need of additional support. The program actively recruits “nontraditional” students while they are in high school and provides extra support as they transition from one institution to another and beyond. Pathway counselors build lasting relationships with students, help them find the resources they need to succeed in college, and ensure that they are on track every step of the way. And the program’s and college’s leaders are meticulous about analyzing outcome data and continually making adjustments to strengthen the program. Perhaps most importantly, NOVA has done all of this without relying on one-time grants to keep to program afloat. Instead they have built the program’s expenses into their regular, ongoing budget and have partnered with surrounding K-12 districts and a nearby 4-year university to share some of the costs.

Initial analysis suggests that Pathway to the Baccalaureate takes students who face more challenges than their peers and provides them with the guidance they need, resulting in higher retention rates, grades, and transfer/graduation rates. No one would argue that it’s a perfect program (or that it could successfully be adopted wholesale in other places) but it does seem that NOVA has figured out a good approach that combines integrated student services, mandatory counseling and skill-building classes, and long-term relationships between counselors and students.

NOVA’s Pathway program provides a promising model for what can be done in the absence of new resources or forward-thinking policy changes. To reach our national goals for college graduation, we’re going to need more of this kind of focused, innovative programming—a lot more.

Click here to read the full report: Pathway to the Baccalaureate: How One Community College is Helping Underprepared Students Succeed.