Dropouts Loom Large for Schools

Community colleges are a bright spot in this economy, yet they fight to keep students.

By + More

Steps to success. How can schools with similar student bodies have such widely varying retention and graduation rates? "Schools can increase graduation rates if they have strong leadership, if they're devoted to making student success a priority, and if they work at it," says Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research and one of the report's authors. "The trouble is many don't work at it. Another trouble is that states are cutting back on subsidies, forcing tuition increases that are scary."

Those who track successful efforts to increase graduation rates and narrow the gap between white and minority retention say taking these steps would advance President Obama's "American Graduation Initiative":

Start before they enroll. Florida State University has achieved a black graduation rate of 72 percent, actually slightly higher than the school's rate for whites. FSU's Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, established in 2000, reaches out to potential students as early as the sixth grade. Florida State has a summer bridge program that includes a weeklong orientation during which students meet the university president and then six weeks during which roughly 300 students live together in a residence hall staffed by handpicked upperclassmen.

Revamp remedial courses. College remediation costs community colleges an estimated $2 billion a year, says the advocacy group Strong American Schools. Many of these students move from mediocre high schools to mediocre remedial college courses taught by part-time adjuncts. The Community College of Baltimore County, Md., is one of many schools that practice "accelerated learning," in which the remedial (or "developmental") pipeline is shortened and remedial students get to credit-bearing courses more quickly. Students might take remedial reading simultaneously with English 101, for example.

Allow concurrent enrollment. Colorado's community colleges allow students to complete as many as 12 credits in college before they graduate from high school. Such an approach eases the transition between high school and college and improves the graduation rates of both.

Make sure no one falls through the cracks, academically or financially. McDaniel College, a competitive private liberal arts college in Westminster, Md., has a graduation rate of 72 percent, somewhat higher than its peers, and it has managed to effectively eliminate the black-white disparity in graduation rates. A system of mentoring and advising ensures that no student is lost, and parents facing the train wreck of a layoff or foreclosure are urged to come in to talk with school officials. "We tell them not to assume anything," says Florence Hines, admissions dean. "We will talk them through the direst emergency."

Make college more engaging. A greater understanding of the student experience could help schools attract and retain students, experts say. The National Survey of Student Engagement at Indiana University obtains information from hundreds of four-year colleges about the extent of student engagement. The survey finds that students learn more when they are intensely involved in their education—inside and outside the classroom. Alexander McCormick, director of the survey, says many colleges are "going beyond the student-as-sponge model" in designing courses.

Expand online and hybrid coursesthose that combine class room and online teaching. This would free up classroom space at a time when many colleges are severely crowded. After all, today's "millennial" students are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media. Hundreds of schools, from the giant for-profit University of Phoenix to Cerro Coso Community College in Southern California, offer online courses. They're ideal for the working student, but they require self-discipline. The courses can be expensive, and many are accelerated from the traditional 16 weeks to as few as five.