Brookings Report Highlights Strategies to Improve Completion Rates at Community Colleges

October 26, 2018

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Title: Improving Community College Completion Rates by Addressing Structural and Motivational Barriers

Author: Elizabeth Mann Levesque

Source: The Brookings Institution

A recent Brookings report takes aim at the structural and motivational barriers that inhibit persistence and completion among community college students.

The report, authored by The Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Mann Levesque, reviews recent research on the causes of stop-out and drop-out in the two-year sector and highlights promising strategies to combat them.

An associate degree offers high school graduates a 37 percent earnings boost, Levesque notes, yet only 40 percent of community college students complete any credential within six years of enrollment, and only 26 percent earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years. For students, the costs of drop-out are substantial: recent estimates suggest that students who exit college rather than complete an associate degree forego between $4,640 and $7,160 in earnings each year.

Yet the problem of low completion rates is neither inexplicable nor intractable, Levesque argues. At the heart of community college students’ low completion rates are structural and motivational barriers.

The structural barriers students confront arise out of community colleges’ unstructured, “cafeteria-style” systems of program and course selection. In the absence of clear, guided pathways to upward transfer or degree completion, students frequently select courses misaligned with their academic goals. Later, many become entangled in complex program requirements and eventually run out of time, money, or patience to fulfill requirements for transfer or completion.

Students also confront important motivational barriers. When students fail to see connections between their coursework and their own lives and goals, some drop out of college to join the workforce instead.

Fortunately, recent research suggests promising strategies to address both problems. Levesque points to the success of the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program, a multi-pronged intervention that offers participants free tuition, textbooks, and public transportation alongside enhanced academic and career advising. That program nearly doubled three-year graduation rates, and a report by the nonprofit research organization MDRC concluded that “ASAP’s effects are the largest MDRC has found in any of its evaluations of community college reforms.”

Levesque writes that researchers and practitioners have also found success in breaking down motivational barriers with course assignments that ask students to draw connections between course material and their own lives. In experimental trials, these classroom interventions increased students’ interest in course material, perceptions of course value, and academic performance. The effects were strongest among students with the lowest prior performance in the course.

—Sam Imlay

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