America's College Promise: Meeting the Higher Education Challenge


Jan 19, 2015

A college student reviewing her notes

Photo by Ridofranz/iStock

President Obama's recent proposal to cover the costs of two years of community college has been hailed as a way to help those struggling most in today's economy and offers hope to many American students and their families. The initiative comes at a time when many students are facing the dual challenges of increasing levels of student debt and disparities in college access and success.

Research shows that when tuition and fees for higher education go down, the number of students who attend and complete college goes up. It is likely that this policy will result in more college-educated workers participating in America's knowledge-based economy. But the American higher education sector faces a number of systemic weaknesses that could jeopardize the promise of Obama's proposal. Steps should be taken to address two key challenges: meeting the needs of underprepared students and devising a system to smooth the transfer of credits from one institution to another.

Addressing the Needs of Underprepared Students

Free community college has great potential to promote college access. But some students will spend significant time and taxpayer dollars without ever graduating unless policies also address the needs of underprepared students. Statistics show that more than 60 percent of community college students are not ready to take college-level coursework. They are placed into long remediation course sequences that often do not provide credit toward a college degree. Fewer than half of these underprepared students will progress through remediation and begin to take courses for credit. And those who do may still be unable to pass courses that will transfer to a four-year institution. So the prospect of free community college, most of which have open access policies, could increase the number of community college students who are inadequately prepared for college coursework. There is continuing debate over the exact source of low success rates in remediation, but there is overwhelming consensus that states, higher education institutions, and K–12 schools must work together to ensure that incoming college students can benefit from attending a postsecondary institution.

Fortunately, a reform movement in the area of remediation, or developmental education, is growing, and the new $10 million U.S. Department of Education-funded “Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness” suggests that the administration is paying attention. Current innovations in developmental education have focused on students at both the high school and college levels. For example, California and Texas now test students' needs for developmental education in high school to improve their academic skills before they enter college. And states including Connecticut, Florida, and Texas, and colleges are addressing the weaknesses of placement tests, the most common means of identifying a student's academic deficiencies. Some assessments now look at students' collegiate goals, their work and family obligations, and their drive to determine the level and types of support they actually need.

Innovations are also occurring in the way community colleges are delivering developmental education. Recent research suggests that semester-long, stand-alone courses delivered in a lecture format don't help most students. Some researchers and foundations are coming up with new approaches that allow students to tie developmental education to their academic and vocational interests, reduce the amount of time they spend in remediation, and address specific deficiencies without having to take a semester-long course.

Reducing Transfer Credit Loss

A second problem is that, historically, academic programs have not been well aligned across institutions, so credits earned at one institution do not always transfer to another.

Community colleges have a long tradition of preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions, and the prospect of free tuition has the potential to divert some bachelor's-degree seeking students from four-year institutions to community colleges. Since most community colleges cost less than four-year institutions, the overall cost of providing lower division coursework may decline. But it's not that simple. The process of navigating through college toward a bachelor's degree is particularly complex for students who begin their academic careers at community colleges. Not all their credits transfer, and even when credits do transfer, the receiving institution may refuse to count them toward the major. Advisors at some community colleges may not have sufficient information about academic programs at other institutions, leaving students with inadequate guidance on the specific coursework they will need. And nontraditional students — including working adults and first generation college students — who are most likely to transfer are typically the least prepared to navigate the transfer process. When credits don't transfer, students must re-take courses, wasting their time and taxpayers' money. This could mean some students who opt to attend community college could end up spending more time completing a degree, or experience lower completion rates, than if they attended public regional four-year institutions. The net impact on total costs of producing four-year graduates could actually increase.

Some states and institutions are beginning to address the problem of transfer credit loss. Among the emerging practices are articulation agreements that specify course equivalencies and credit transfer policies across institutions. In some cases, statewide agreements are mandated, requiring institutions to accept certain academic credits from any institution in the state. Despite initial optimism about articulation agreements, the research on their effectiveness has been discouraging. In practice, many institutions and faculty oppose them, arguing that the courses offered at other institutions are not adequate substitutes for their own. To address these issues, many states and institutions have attempted to align the content covered in key courses across institutions. The hope is that this process will help to improve the rate of acceptance of transfer credit and smooth the transfer process for students.

Institutions have also begun to experiment with “guided degree pathways,” in which student transfers from one institution to another are planned in advance. This approach allows the institutions to design the degree pathway so that the transfer institution more readily accepts the credits obtained at the feeder institution. This detailed information about the explicit degree pathway also makes community college advisors more effective. While research on guided pathways is only beginning to emerge, the approach has considerable potential to improve student success and reduce the time it takes to get a degree.

Free Community College Must Work in Tandem with Other Reform Efforts

The administration is correct in recognizing that unmet financial need can block many students from going to or completing college. Community colleges, which play a vital role in preparing a more skilled workforce and strengthening the economy, face systemic challenges. In particular, they must develop effective programs to assist underprepared students, and they need to help all students take courses that will seamlessly transfer institution to institution. By working together, states, K–12 schools, community colleges and four-year colleges can support real and sustainable progress that embodies the promise of higher education.

Trey Miller is an economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Holly Kosiewicz is a Ph.D. candidate, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, and a 2014 RAND summer associate.

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