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Easing the Transition

Community colleges offer hope to many at-risk students and a variety of programs aims to help them get there. A TC study finds that one solution may be to set high expectations and provide academic and practical services to help students achieve those expectations.

Community colleges educate just under half of all undergraduates in the U.S. - the majority from low-income, minority or first-generation immigrant families. Yet many of these students never complete their degrees. (Six years after initial enrollment, only 36% of students who start their higher education in a community college have completed certificates, associates or bachelor's degrees) and many more simply never reach college.

In a world where a post-secondary credential is increasingly the ticket to upward economic mobility, that's grim news. But how to improve the picture? TC's Community College Research Center (CCRC) is the nation's premier independent research organization devoted to the study of these institutions. Its fundamental mission is to conduct research that will promote equitable college access and succsess for all students.

Research shows that many college students are not prepared academically for college-level work-in some community colleges a majority of entering students fail to pass entry-level assessments, and are therefore assigned to developmental classes. Moreover, many high school students have no idea what is expected of them in college and are surprised and discouraged when they learn that they are not adequately prepared. Hence the growth of programs that aim to improve academic and social preparation for high school students, particularly for those who are most at risk.

Chief among these are credit based transition programs (often called "dual enrollment" programs), in which high school students take college or college-level courses. "It's an ambitious strategy," says Thomas Bailey, TC's George and Abby O'Neil Professor of Economics and Education, and Director of the school's Community College Research Center (CCRC). "It seems contradictory - why take students who aren't doing well in high school and put them into college-level courses early? But the rationale is that by expecting more from these students -- by giving them a taste of college, treating them as more mature, and providing academic and student support services -- you can motivate them to do better. It's very optimistic."

Indeed, politicians on both sides of the aisle support the idea. The U.S. Department of Education has enthusiastically supported research and demonstrations of dual enrollment and similar high school to college transition programs. Margaret Spellings, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, announced her intention to pour $150 million into such programs.

There's just one catch. "There is still little research to show that students in dual enrollment programs go to college at a higher rate or do any better," Bailey says.

Ultimately, CCRC hopes to be able to answer that question. For now, though, the Center - with funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education - is studying credit based transition programs that are enroll a broad range of students, not just those who traditionally have been bound for college. One goal of the study is to determine which components of dual enrollment programs have the potential to be most effective for lower- or middle-achieving students. The answer, according to "Pathways to College Access and Success" -- a study that will be released in April by CCRC's Katherine Hughes, Melinda Mechur Karp, Baranda Fermin and Thomas Bailey -- is the ones that involve students early in high school to get them ready for college level work.

"The bottom line is that you don't just stick disaffected high school sophomores in a college-level course- you prepare them for it in advance," Bailey says. "Ultimately, it's about breaking down the sharp distinctions between the high school and college cultures and integrating them."

Take the College Now initiative, a collaboration between CUNY and the New York City Department of Education. At one College Now-affiliated high school with a high immigrant enrollment, Hughes and Karp found that CUNY's involvement is helping students to receive remediation courses that many wouldn't normally receive until they had already entered the CUNY system. That's important, because "remediation rates at community colleges, particularly for students who are most at risk, are very high," Karp explains. "High school graduates think they are ready for college, and then they take placement tests and find they need remediation. It can be very disheartening, and many end up dropping out."

CUNY is working with each high school in the College Now program to customize courses to their needs, Hughes says. CUNY has also aligned its placement standards to the New York State Regents Examination scores, enabling students who receive a grade of 75 or above on the English and Math Regents exams to automatically place out of remediation courses. The College Now courses given in high schools also use that standard. "Students may take the pre-curriculum course to help them succeed on the Regents so that they can eventually enroll in the dual enrollment class," Hughes says.

The study by Hughes, Karp, Fermin and Bailey bases its judgments solely on the benefits perceived by students and teachers. That's a far cry from knowing whether dual enrollment programs actually improve college graduation rates. But it certainly seems like a good place to start.

"Community colleges are a huge equity issue," Bailey says. "For the students who we're most concerned about, they represent a significant source of opportunity. Through dual enrollment programs, these institutions can work with high schools to strengthen the academic and social preparation of secondary school students and increase their success once they are enrolled in college. Given the enthusiasm for the idea, a federally supported, well-designed program of innovation and assessment would seem to be well worth the effort. And research on these programs is particularly timely at TC as the College works to deepen its commitment to educational equity at all levels."

These studies and more information on the work being done by the CCRC are available at http://www.tc.columbia.edu/ccrc/ .

Published Monday, May. 2, 2005


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