Too Many Students Drop Out of Community Colleges. Here's How We Fix It.

Jan 19, 2018 12:00:00 AM


"Persistence" is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many community college students enter classes in the fall and soon disappear from campus—often before even the full academic year has passed. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students, especially those who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college. How do we help them to complete their classes and secure a degree? There’s a lot of variance in degree-attainment data, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low 20s.

There's Got To Be A Better Way

Everyone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this. A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching or even wake-up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students lack confidence or independent life skills. They need exactly this type of treatment because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class and take careful notes—might not be so clear for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models. It is also often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation's community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates. There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared and motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control. These are the people I mean:
  • I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Even though she tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.
  • I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and doesn’t live near public transit. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors and he knows what he is missing in class. But by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.
  • I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly retail job to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. She falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem for her budget—so she takes on extra shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. She loses study time and doesn’t fully recover from her illness and her wellbeing, classwork and grades suffer.
The three examples I have sketched from my experiences with my own community college students have a common theme: A minor financial setback becomes an academic catastrophe. In all of these cases and many others like them, the amount of money necessary to keep these students in their classes and on track to graduate was shockingly modest—perhaps a couple of hundred dollars could have saved their semesters and helped them to succeed in school. The question I have when I see adequately prepared and motivated students fall by the wayside due to a financial glitch that is relatively minor and utterly beyond their control is this: [pullquote position="right"]Should community colleges invest a bit of money in these students today to help them to graduate tomorrow?[/pullquote] There’s a dollars-and-cents argument here. These schools already spend a lot of money on staff, facility, travel and advertising to recruit new students—many of whom would replace those who have dropped out. Would a few hundred dollars save thousands later? Moreover, the availability of this sort of emergency grant could also draw more students into reaching out for other help offered by the college rather than just disappearing. If $200 for a new starter motor for a car today is going to help a student walk across the stage and collect an associate degree a few years in the future, that’s money well spent. Community colleges will be wary of setting up programs to make emergency micro-grants. Trustees and state administrators would be understandably fearful of the negative publicity and investigations that would certainly result from this type of initiative were it to be poorly managed. No one wants to open the newspaper and read about sneaky students with sob stories scamming their local community college for weed money. However, appropriate guidelines and management controls could be developed by community colleges that would greatly minimize the possibilities for abuse and misuse of the funds set aside for this purpose. Would these safeguards eliminate abuse entirely? No, but they’d help schools keep an eye out for fraud. [pullquote position="left"]Any such program should start small and scale up as schools gain feedback from the students they work with.[/pullquote] This would be to fine-tune the process of disbursing funds, because it must not fall into bureaucratic deadlock if it is to be truly helpful to students facing a short-term financial crisis. Although no reasonable person would suggest simply handing out cash from a shoebox in the dean's office, a program of this type will be effective if—and only if—funds can be provided within a business day. The more time that passes between the articulation of the financial emergency and its resolution, the fewer students who actually will be helped. Is this idea worth a shot? That would be up to an individual community college to decide. However, it might be worth asking what is currently being spent on all programs at that college connected to student recruitment and retention. We can gather those figures, do some rough calculations and ask whether a $250 grant that has, for the sake of argument, a 50-50 chance of keeping a student in school is a bargain when balanced against all the other expenses on the other side of the ledger. I offer this idea for consideration because I believe we need to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to find solutions that will better serve our students—including those who are motivated but lack the economic safety net other students might possess. Given the well-documented crisis of non-completion at our nation's community colleges, perhaps it is time for some innovative initiatives that are based upon the real-world challenges that so many of our economically vulnerable students actually face. If we do not stretch beyond the tried-and-true (but perhaps not entirely effective) solutions of the past, we risk losing more and more students of modest means—but big dreams—who are trying to use community college as a stepping stone to a better life.

Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Wilk has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He received his B.A. from Yale University and M.A. from the University of Connecticut, and he holds a Professional Educator License in Illinois.

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