Recent reports on the graduation rates at community colleges, for-profit colleges, and online colleges indicate that all are struggling to provide students with cost-effective, efficient, and productive paths toward graduation. In Texas, only 30% of all full-time community college students end up with any degree at all after six years of attendance. Similarly, a March 2011 Connecticut Education Department report showed that only 10% of all full-time community college students in two-year Associates degree or shorter certificate programs graduated in three years. This continues a trend that the U.S. Education Department found in a lengthy study conducted from 2004-2007: Only 28% of community college students completed a two-year degree in three years. And at for-profit colleges, the graduation rate is only 22%. At traditional brick-and-mortar campuses, where the majority of courses do not include 100% online content, the national average graduation rate is a much higher 63.2%. That’s a huge difference.
So what’s going on? It would seem that community colleges, for-profit colleges, and online programs would be a great choice for students that are low on cash, can only attend part-time, or need more flexibility in class schedules. Traditionally, community colleges served low-income and minority students who were unable to get into other schools because they lacked the skills and test scores required by those schools. For-profit and online colleges also provide opportunities for such students, because there are few or no entrance requirements. These students really cannot afford to spend tuition money and end up with no degree to show for it.
One answer to this puzzle seems to be that students who enroll in these institutions lack essential skills—certainly the skills needed to get into four-year colleges and universities, but also even the most basic academic skills required for introductory college courses. Assistant Chancellor of the community college system in Connecticut, Mary Anne Cox, believes that “Too many students that come to us need remedial courses to be successful here. For these at-risk students to enroll, enter the college and persist and succeed in college level study, complete certificate and degree programs, is a daunting challenge for them and for the colleges that serve them.” Cox reports that in Connecticut, 80% or more of all community college students require remedial coursework before they can even enroll in standard-level college courses, because they have so many deficits in reading, writing, and basic math skills. This can add a year or more to their degree programs.
But there is very good news about the progress colleges are making at improving graduation rates. While elementary and secondary education is subject to continual assessment and plans are frequently made to address the problem of underprepared students, measures have also been taken to reduce the number of students who leave community, for-profit, and online colleges without a degree. A recent report from the New America Foundation, “Pathway to the Baccalaureate,” profiled a successful community college program that required students to maintain regular contact with a series of trained academic counselors to help them transition to college-level work. Some community colleges are also following the model provided by traditional four-year colleges and universities by posting midterm grades, establishing academic probation and supension, and reassiging faculty to make sure that the appropriate professor teaches the course.
Other schools require specific college-training courses. At the for-profit college I taught at for several years, all students were required to take such courses, which taught them how to write basic essays, employ critical thinking, and study effectively. These courses made a huge difference for struggling students. Like community colleges, that college also offered pre-college remedial courses for significantly underprepared students, to help them with essential skills such as effective reading. This was especially beneficial to students who were not primarily English-speaking or who had learning disabilities that had been undiagnosed throughout their primary and secondary school experience. Such students have a more difficult transition to college than many others, and supplemental pre-college courses provide a bridge between high school and college-level work. Kaplan Higher Education offers accommodations for students with learning disabilities and at some of its brick-and-mortar campuses requires remedial courses for some students. And, according to one representative I spoke with at Kaplan University, they provide tutoring services for interested students. Primarily though, online colleges are designed to meet the needs of students who already feel comfortable with distance learning and have already mastered the basic skills necessary for more independent work. One University of Phoenix admissions officer I contacted affirmed what I saw on their website, which is that there is no tutoring offered for students struggling with course material.
These are only some of the scenarios developing to address the problem of low graduation rates. While many factors contribute to the problem of low graduation rates, there is no reason why a student cannot succeed at one of these colleges. The best thing that a student can do in selecting a college is to make sure that it offers the necessary support for the completion of a college degree. For example, if you know that you have a learning disability, make sure you enroll in a school that offers support for that. If you think you would benefit from tutoring, make sure that the school offers it or that you can afford to pay for it from one of the many online tutoring companies available. As in traditional college settings, success in the online educational world is really up to the student.