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2016 March 15 - 11:16 am

Free Tuition Is Not Enough

Three Ways to Improve Outcomes for Community College Students

The “free community college” movement is gaining steam at both the state and the federal level. Led by Tennessee, several states have already enrolled thousands of students in no-tuition community college programs, and President Barack Obama has pushed for free tuition throughout 2015.

But many worry the focus on tuition detracts attention away from myriad other reasons why community college students fail to complete their studies. Difficulty balancing school with personal commitments — and a lack of understanding about which classes to take — are powerful factors working against student success. Easing a student’s financial burden can be a tremendous help, but it doesn’t address other pressing concerns.

Even students who pay no tuition at all may have difficulty making it to the finish line. In Indiana, where the 21st Century Scholars Program provides tuition-free college to tens of thousands of students each year, the completion rate for those students attending community college is still only 13 percent. (source) And this is not a good time for individuals who begin pursuing higher education to drop out. Associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees are becoming increasingly important. Although 55 million jobs are predicted to open through 2020, 30 percent of those will require an associate degree, and another 35 percent will require a bachelor’s, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

Institutions of higher learning can do more to help students finish their programs and head out into the world with the degrees they planned on earning when they enrolled. Here are three ways:

1. Map out guided pathways. Students need to find paths to graduation that aren’t riddled with twists turns, and surprises every step of the way. Nothing is more discouraging than thinking you’re on the right track, only to discover that you missed a required course that isn’t offered until the semester after you were supposed to graduate.

Yet most community colleges offer courses a la carte instead of developing well-defined routes to degrees. This approach presents countless opportunities for students to make poor choices, get off track, and waste precious time taking the wrong classes.

Setting up a clear academic plan at the beginning of the journey — and reducing the number of choices students need to make along the way — makes reaching graduation considerably easier.

2. Practice corequisite remediation. Rather than placing underprepared students in remedial courses, it’s better to put them in college-level courses and provide them with additional support. The effectiveness of this approach is undeniable.

Studies from around the country have shown that, compared to remedial courses, students in corequisite courses have had twice the success rate in English and five to six times the success rate in math.

Tristan Denley from the Tennessee Board of Regents reported that even students with ACT scores as low as 13 benefited more from corequisite courses. (source) With the right support, students can remain on their preferred tracks to graduation.

3. Provide student success coaching. Most of the time, students drop out before graduating because they can’t manage of all of their outside responsibilities on top of school. These can include anything from caring for a family member to a nonflexible work schedule. Many students aren’t able to put everything else on hold for a couple of years while they focus solely on their post-secondary education.

The best way to help students overcome this challenge is to provide nonacademic support to assist them in balancing school and personal responsibilities. This includes making them aware of free or inexpensive resources like tutoring, helping them hit deadlines, and working with them on goal setting and time management.

A study from the Stanford University School of Education showed that students who received this kind of coaching are 10 to 15 percent more likely to stay in college until graduation. (source) More recently, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education began providing student success coaching to 21st Century Scholars in their freshman year of college with excellent results. First-year persistence for scholar students in the Ivy Tech Community College system increased by 8.8 percentage points, a 24 percent increase over historical retention rates. (source) Free tuition will probably help more students enroll in community college, but that isn’t enough — they have to finish what they start. We need more institutions to walk alongside students until graduation in order to benefit our students, our schools, and our society as a whole.

Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a leader in promoting creative expression through self-published books.

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