Redesigning America’s Community Colleges

I must be in back to school mode as I have been reading lots of work related books and have been covering several of them in recent blog posts.   Today, I’ve got one more to add to the list:  Redesigning America’s Community Colleges by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins.  The authors are all affiliated with Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, and this work builds upon decades of research on what works in community colleges.  The book’s big take-away is that the current system doesn’t work for most students—especially those from low-income households or those who face other challenges and obstacles.  The statistics presented in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges are sobering and depressing; less than 40% of community college enrollees receive any kind of credential or degree within six years.  In other words, lots of students enroll in community college, but few complete it.

The authors attribute this poor track record to the current community college model, which they refer to as the “cafeteria style model,” where it is very easy (and relatively cheap) to enroll and colleges offer hundreds of course and learning options to students.   For many students, the range and scale of choices is overwhelming—especially when they have little support or guidance at home and very limited guidance at the college as well.   Thus, it’s not surprising that many students make bad choices , fail to complete needed requirements and drop out.

The authors call for a more hands-on approach that they dub the “guided pathways model.”  This method, already being pioneered at many colleges, requires an extensive redesign of how colleges work.   It’s impossible to do justice to the model here, but, in general, it requires more investments in counseling and guidance, teacher training, and overall enhancements to the student experience.  Students don’t just receive orientation on their first day.  They are guided and supported throughout their college experience so that they leave school with a needed credential or degree.  After all, the purpose of college is not to enroll, but to complete your desired program of study.  This excellent book is worth a read by anyone working in economic and workforce development, and facing struggles in ensuring that local youth and adults are getting—and completing—the training they need for good jobs and successful careers.

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