A new graduate of the City College of New York at commencement in June 2016 Mike Segar/Reuters

Across the country, the same hurdles keep students from obtaining degrees, often putting middle-class jobs with good wages out of reach.

How can millions of Americans be out of work or stuck in low-wage jobs, while employers leave millions of jobs unfilled each year? A big reason is the nation’s college completion crisis—something that is just beginning to get the national attention it deserves. In fact, less than half of America’s college students ever graduate. And the numbers are worse at community colleges, which are the primary providers of education and training for the 29 million middle-skill jobs that pay middle-class wages.

This isn’t only a problem for the individuals who don’t graduate. It’s a problem for all of us. Without decent jobs with decent pay, people remain trapped in poverty, income inequality persists, and the American promise of opportunity for all can’t be fulfilled.  

Well-paying jobs that require only a high school diploma have largely disappeared as automation and globalization continue to transform the economy. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. Community colleges serve close to half of all American students, enrolling 10 million students each year, but just under 20 percent earn an associate’s degree within three years.

Dismal as these numbers are, they don’t reflect the full extent of the problem, since the statistics exclude students enrolled part-time and those who “stop out”—take a break from school to work or care for family and later return to college. There is anecdotal evidence that completion rates for these students are even lower. This means that a large swath of America’s potential workforce isn’t getting the education and training they need to support themselves and their families and climb into the middle class.

There are two central reasons that students don’t complete college, and they typically operate in tandem: inadequate preparation and difficulty navigating college.

High school graduates from high-poverty areas are generally not well prepared for college-level work, so they get assigned to “developmental” (remedial) courses in math and English. Working adults who enroll in community college in an effort to advance their careers face similar hurdles, as their academic skills are typically rusty.

Students may be required to take anywhere from one to three developmental courses, which must be taken sequentially and don’t confer college credit. The delay costs students both time and money—developmental courses use up financial aid, which has a lifetime limit, and don’t count toward a degree—and produces frustration and discouragement. Seventy percent of students assigned to developmental courses never complete college.  

The second reason students don’t earn a degree is the difficulty of combining college with other commitments or navigating the higher education system. Close to two-thirds of community college students work to support themselves and their families while in school, and they may be facing homelessness and hunger. Many are single parents, and more than a third are the first in their families to attend college—both factors that can pose major obstacles to graduation.

Because many community college students have had little prior exposure to higher education, they often struggle with all the moving parts that go into completing college successfully: choosing courses that lead to a degree, applying for financial aid, obtaining tutoring or other academic supports, and balancing work and school.

Students at Metro, a STEM early college high school in Columbus (Courtesy of Jobs for the Future)

This is not a new problem; it’s been on the radar of educators and policymakers for decades. Our organization, Jobs for the Future (JFF), and its partners have developed some solutions to improve college completion rates nationwide:

Redesigning remedial education

New approaches aim to shorten the time a student spends doing remedial work and make that work relevant to the student’s career goals. Whenever possible, developmental education courses become credit-bearing, speeding the student’s progress toward a degree.

Colleges are also looking for more effective ways to measure academic readiness. Instead of relying on standardized test scores to determine which students need remediation, colleges are using multiple measures, including high school transcripts, teacher evaluations, and conversations between students and advisors.

JFF has worked with Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, and other states to lead a national movement to reform developmental education.

Guided pathways through college

A course catalogue is not unlike an all-you-can-eat buffet: It presents students with a dizzying array of appealing options but provides little guidance on choosing the right courses, in the right order. With only minimal advising available, college students frequently make poor choices and end up with a disjointed collection of credits instead of a degree or the right credits to transfer to a four-year school.

The solution, called “guided pathways,” is like a prix fixe menu. The universe of choices is narrowed and organized into sequences that help a student get and stay on a path to completing a certificate or degree. Guided pathways also include intensive advising and other supports to help students navigate all aspects of college life. JFF provides expertise to institutions and policymakers to promote policies and programs that support guided pathways.

Early college high school

Early college high school prepares low-income students academically and gives them the knowledge and confidence they need to navigate college. Students in these programs take college courses, for credit, in high school, so they reach college academically prepared instead of requiring remediation. Extensive support from teachers and counselors, and lots of exposure to college campuses, culture, and expectations, gives even the most vulnerable students an opportunity to complete college.

Most students (94 percent) in these programs graduate from high school with some college credit, and a third earn an associate’s degree by graduation, allowing them to enroll directly in a four-year college. JFF and our partners have helped start or redesign more than 280 early college schools that currently serve more than 80,000 students nationwide.

Developing these solutions requires a great deal of thoughtful, collaborative effort. Each has taken years—often decades—to develop, and all are works in progress that require significant investment to sustain. Improving college completion rates is slow and costly, but the cost of leaving large swaths of the population behind is far higher.

Nomi Sofer contributed to this article.

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