Pathways Through College: Postsecondary Success Initiative

Bob Rath, Katie Rock, and Ashley Laferriere
July 5, 2012
This is the first of a two–part exploration of how we can improve college graduation rates for vulnerable students. In this post the authors, Bob Rath, Executive Director, Katie Rock, External Affairs Specialist, and Ashley Laferriere, Policy Intern, at Our Piece of the Pie provide an overview of the problem of low college completion with a follow-up post on the powerful Postsecondary Success Initiative.
Christina is a student at Capital Community College in Hartford, Connecticut. She has twice made the Dean’s List, maintains a GPA of 3.71, and holds an internship in the Radiology Department at Hartford’s Saint Francis Hospital. Christina was offered a summer position to work with the Girl Scouts of Connecticut and is part of the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) Postsecondary Initiative’s Student Government Association. She will travel to Washington, D.C. this summer, with four of her fellow students, to make a presentation on what college student support structures have done to improve her success and the success of her peers.
Christina exemplifies what it means to succeed at community college. She embodies the accomplishments we hope all students will achieve, and she is well on her way to realizing the goal of an associate degree. Unfortunately, Christina’s story is not typical.
The Challenge: According to Complete College America, less than 30% of American students who enroll full-time in community college complete an associate degree in three years. Completion rates are especially low for minority, low-income, and older students. Just 7.5% of African American students, 11.1% of Hispanic students, 11.8% of low-income students, and 14.4% of students over the age of 25, enrolled full-time, complete a 2-year associate degree in 3 years. Part-time students complete at even lower rates, with just over 2% of African American students, 2.6% of Hispanic students, and 4.3% of low-income students completing an associate degree in 3 years. 
 In Connecticut, the situation is equally dire. According to a 2009 report by the P-20 Council, just 7 – 24% of community college students graduate within 3 years of entering school. This means that between 76 and 93% of students are paying 3 years worth of community college tuition without receiving a diploma as a result of their investment.
* These calculations do not include annual tuition increases and additional expenses incurred by students, such as books, lab fees, and student activity fees. The opportunity cost of the time these students spend in school, rather than working and earning a salary outside the classroom, is also not included in these numbers.
Community colleges serve an essential purpose. Graduates of community college produce significant social benefits over non-graduates including, lower unemployment rates, increased tax revenue, and reduced crime rates, to name a few.  Therefore, it is essential to solve the issues inhibiting community college success. Improvements will not only save students and taxpayers a significant amount of money but also increase the likelihood of individual student achievement in the process. To improve community college outcomes, it is important to address both why students are dropping out of community college at such high rates, and what we can do to improve the rates of retention and completion at these vital institutions.
College Remediation: One of the most influential causes of community college dropout is remedial education. Complete College America reports that almost 50% of students entering 2-year colleges are required to take remedial courses. This number is even higher for minority and low-income students. In fact, over 67% of African American students, 58% of Hispanic students, and 64% of low-income students pursuing a 2-year degree require remediation.
Eager students are sidetracked by these remedial course requirements that do not provide college credit but increase the amount of time students must spend in school. According to Complete College America, the longer a student is enrolled in school, the less likely they are to finish their degree. Because 75% of community college students are working, raising children, commuting to school, or juggling some combination of these three obligations, many cannot afford to attend school full-time. In addition, they also must take remedial classes to acquire the educational foundation they should have received in high school. These factors increase the number of non-credit courses a student must take before they can begin credited coursework, therefore increasing the overall time a student must stay in school and decreasing their chances of obtaining a degree.
Remediation is also expensive, as remedial courses costs the same amount as credit bearing classes. Nationally, approximately $3 billion is spent annually on remedial courses and the cost is constantly growing. According to the College Board, the average tuition at public, two-year colleges increased by just 5% from 1992 - 2002. Yet, over the most recent decade (2002 – 2012), the average tuition at public, two-year colleges increased by 45%. These rising costs are especially disconcerting for remedial students who do not receive credit for their coursework. Students placed in remedial classes can spend thousands of dollars to attend courses and have no credits to show for their time, money, and hard work.
The system as it stands is not working. High schools are falling short by sending ill-prepared students to college. Colleges are falling short by steering too many students toward remediation and failing to provide the support students require. It is time to change state and federal policies to ensure that students are ready for college and to provide suitable help to community college students so they can succeed in their post-secondary work.
Connecticut Takes on Remediation: Connecticut recently took an important step toward addressing remediation issues. The recently signed Public Act 12-40 requires colleges to embed remedial supports into entry-level courses for which students receive credits, instead of forcing students into remedial classes where no credit is available. Under this act, colleges must do away with remedial courses entirely by 2014. By 2016, colleges and high schools will partner to align curriculum and ensure that students are prepared for the academic rigors of college, with the goal of making remediation unnecessary.  

This act is especially important in light of a recent reduction in the amount of time a student can use federal Pell Grants. Pell Grants typically cover more of a community college students’ tuition than other college students, so this act is especially critical for this student population. In 2011, the number of semesters a student may receive a Pell Grant award was shortened from 18 semesters to 12 semesters. This change was implemented in 2012 and, according to the Association of Community College Trustees, is expected to impact 63,000 Pell Grant recipients.  PA 12-40 ensures that Connecticut students will not waste time and money on non-credit bearing remedial classes while jeopardizing the long-term funding of their education.

The act also has the potential to save the state a significant amount of money. According to the New England Board of HigherEducation, providing remediation to students entering Connecticut colleges costs the state $84 million every year. In addition to these savings, reducing the need for remediation is estimated to generate an additional $19 million in annual state earnings, due to increased educational attainment, for a total state benefit of $103 million each year.  Of course, embedding remedial supports into entry-level courses will have a price. According to the Connecticut Office of Fiscal Analysis, PA 12-40 will cost higher education institutions $750,000 in Fiscal Year 2014, with $500,000 spent to develop and embed remedial supports in college level courses, and $250,000 spent by Regional Community-Technical Colleges to develop an intensive college readiness program. Additional costs would be dependent on the types of programs developed.  Despite the cost of these programs, the potential for long-term savings is high. By aligning high school and college curriculum, remediation will ultimately become rare, if not obsolete. Not only will this save millions in remediation costs, but it will increase the likelihood that students will graduate, vastly increasing their earning potential.

Continued in Part II >>

Bob Rath, President/CEO, has led the transformation of Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP®) into a youth development organization intently focused on helping urban youth become successful adults.   With more than 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, he has worked to expand OPP’s services in communities and schools across the state and nation, as well as engaging in state and federal policy agendas, pushing for a greater focus on our country’s struggling students and high school dropouts.  
Kathryn Rock, External Affairs Specialist, earned her Master's in Public Administration from the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, with a concentration in Social Policy. She has been with Our Piece of the Pie since 2010, leading the agency’s policy research efforts and supporting additional External Affairs functions.
Ashley Laferriere, Policy Intern, recently earned her Master’s in Public Administration, and Certificate in Public and Nonprofit Management, from the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and English from Providence College and has worked in the nonprofit sector since 2006.
This blog post was originally published on Connected by 25, the blog of the Youth Transition Funders Group (YTFG). It is reprinted here with permission.