The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Ready for College? Community College Data Suggests Otherwise

Low community college completion rates are a major reason that six nations passed the U.S. in higher education degrees for ages 25-34 in the last decade. In Texas, for example, educational strengths are more concentrated in the older population, because the proportion of younger adults (ages 25-34) with a two year or four year degree has fallen behind that of older adults (ages 35-64).

In a recent blog , I reviewed a significant new study by Thomas Bailey , Defending the Community College Agenda, Johns Hopkins Press, 2006. His book raises major questions about the effectiveness of community colleges in terms of adequate college preparation and college success, as well as support for college after students enroll. Below is a summary of my own views on these topics from a variety of sources including the Bailey book.

First, some quick facts:

Community colleges in the U.S. enroll 45% of first-time students in all types of postsecondary education and include 50% of total enrollment in public postsecondary education.

Low income and minority students are heavily concentrated in community colleges.

A large majority of community college students want a four year degree, but only 39% transfer to a four year institution and an abysmally low rate of 23% ultimately obtain a four year degree.

Why do students with high education aspirations fail to realize their goals of college success and college completion in community colleges? There are several reasons, but inadequate academic preparation and lack of money are crucial. Both of these causes have deep historical roots.

Community colleges were created at the turn of the 20th century as junior colleges, closely linked to high schools. As late as the 1930s, 85% of two-year colleges were physically located in high schools. Consequently, secondary schools and their students knew more about what was needed to succeed academically in the 13th and 14th grade, and then to transfer to a four-year college.

But over the next thirty years, the close association was shattered as public community colleges accumulated three functions in addition to college transfer
(1) vocational, (2) general education, and (3) community adult education.

Adults can take courses in aerobic dance or photography. Community colleges became an all-purpose institution that lost their focus on college preparation, and moved their campuses away from high schools. Isolation from high schools spawned a lack of clear signals to secondary students about the necessary academic preparation to succeed. Community colleges emphasized that anybody over eighteen years of age could attend, and featured the goal of a second chance for low performing students.

But a nationwide study by Stanford University revealed that secondary students received signals that (1) there were very low academic standards at community colleges, and (2) their minimum high school graduation requirements were enough to succeed.

Very few secondary students knew about college placement exams given to first time students when they initially enroll. I estimate that 60% of entering community college students fail a placement test and end up in remedial noncredit courses that extend their time for a degree, and consequently increase total college costs.

Financial aid remains a mystery for too many first-time students in community colleges. State and federal financial aid for low income students was not designed for community college students who are often part time and first generation. These students do not know that they must apply for federal Pell grants before they enroll at community colleges. The federal forms are extremely complex and make the long form income tax look easy by comparison. Financial aid is more difficult to obtain for part time students who must work to pay for college, or help their families.

What to do about this? Community colleges and high schools cannot solve these problems working separately.

Most high school seniors imagine community college to be a souped up high school, so they take only a few college prep courses in their senior year. Community colleges should create tighter linkages to high schools and send clear and strong signals to students about challenging academic standards. Community colleges should recommend that high school students take college placement exams in their junior year. If they score low, then the senior year needs to become an intensive college prep experience.

Financial aid forms need to be simplified and students notified of their aid eligibility before spring of their senior year in high school.

Student aid based on financial need should be increased.

States should provide financial rewards to community colleges that increase completion rates.

On September 26, 2006 Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling endorsed most of these recommendations, but much of the changes must be initiated and implemented by state and local educators.

Finally, community college students can enhance their college completion chances by staying enrolled continuously and not taking long breaks from college. Each enrollment gap makes it less likely that they will graduate.


Copyright 2006 My College Puzzle