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Guest Post: What Students Don't Know About Community College Could Hurt Them

Published:  October 26, 2010

By Thad Nodine

The recent White House Community College Summit succeeded in focusing well-deserved attention on community colleges and their role in providing students with opportunities to earn certificates and degrees. What was missing from the summit, however, was a call to action to bridge the divide between K-12 education and community colleges, which contributes to the nation’s low rates of college completion. It’s the students who pay the price for K-12 and postsecondary systems that are not connected -- by not being ready for college.

Too many high school students find, after they enroll in community college, that they’re not adequately prepared. Estimates suggest that a whopping 75 percent of incoming community college students are required to take remedial courses in English or math, even though they passed their high school requirements in these core subjects. In the California Community Colleges, for example, 83 percent of incoming students place into remedial math, and 72 percent place into remedial English.

Having that many students working to catch up in college limits their progress toward the completion of degrees. We do not have recent national data but a longitudinal study in the early 1990s confirmed that students who take remedial courses have a lower chance of earning a bachelor’s degree. The more remedial courses they need, the lower their chances. In addition, taking basic skills courses in college adds costs to students, and those who attend community colleges can least afford those extra costs.

At WestEd in San Francisco, my colleagues and I recently completed a two-year study that asked California Community College students, in focus groups at five colleges, about their experiences completing high school and entering community college. As reported in One Shot Deal, we found that many recent high school graduates were surprised to learn, when they enrolled in community college, that they were not prepared. Many were also shocked to find out that even though community colleges allow open entry, they nonetheless have standards for college-level courses.

Surprised by the Rigors of Community College

Community college students reported that when they were in high school they thought they did not need to do anything extra to prepare for community college -- that graduating from high school was sufficient. Some students said they had heard about preparing for the SAT or the ACT, which are required for admission at most four-year colleges and universities. But the students in general had heard very little -- or nothing -- about needing to prepare for rigorous courses at community colleges.

For example, one student said, “At my high school, they said junior college is at the bottom. I always thought junior college was for people who really didn’t care about school and weren’t going to do anything with their life.”

In general, the students we spoke with blamed themselves for not preparing better for college, even though they had not realized that community colleges have high standards. A student told us, “It’s like, oh my gosh, I just basically wasted four years [in high school] by taking the easy track, when I should have taken the more advanced.” Another said that she wished she had been told that all college-bound students need to take the challenging courses required for UC and CSU (that is, the a-g course requirements): “They don’t tell you that the a-g requirements are required [to prepare for community college]. After you graduate from high school, you figure that out: ‘Oh, these classes they told me were options weren’t actually [just] options.’”

These students understood too late that graduating from high school did not prepare them for community college.

Unprepared for College Assessments

Many students were also caught off-guard by college assessment and course placement. Community colleges have set up processes for incoming students, including orientation, counseling, assessment, and placement. But students, by and large, viewed the practices as a one-shot deal.  Many of them told us that they walked into a testing center unprepared and unaware of the stakes. They took a test, received a printout of their results, and registered for courses -- usually on the same day. For most of them, the process was over at that point. Many students did not meet with a counselor to discuss their test results, course-taking options, or an educational plan.

As one student said about the assessment experience, “I thought it was one of those tests that you take just to see which kind of field they were going to recommend. And then I found out it places you in classes.” Another student reported, “The woman at the test center said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you place. It’s just to see where you are.’ Looking back, that’s not true. It’s really important.”

The implication of these findings is not necessarily that students are being placed in the wrong course levels, although this may be the case. The significance is that assessment and course placement should be part of a process that students are aware of ahead of time and can prepare for. Better yet, the process should be connected to an academic curriculum and a supportive environment that leads students from high school to community college, and offers opportunities for adult learners to prepare as well.

Students who did not do well on the placement tests expressed frustration once they realized they were stuck in basic skills courses. Many considered dropping out. “At the beginning, you just think what you’re taking is good, but then after a few days, you see how you messed up, and you can’t reverse it,” one student told us.

Recommendations to Help Students

These findings must be framed by the acknowledgment that California’s community colleges were operating under stringent budget conditions before the economic recession; they have lost staff and programmatic resources during the downturn, and it is likely that funding for matriculation services may continue to deteriorate. It is also important to note that the purpose of our project was not to identify effective matriculation programs in individual community colleges. of which there are many.

Given the students’ misperceptions about community college,  the following recommendations are directed toward developing more seamless, longer-term processes that engage high schools and community colleges in aligned efforts to provide students with information, assessment, and course placement prior to enrolling:

  • School leaders and state policymakers need to work with community colleges to develop and provide high school students with diagnostic college assessments by the junior year. These tests will be eye-openers for students who are not prepared for college-level classes. For students who need to catch up in math or English, high schools need to provide that coursework during the senior year.
  • Community colleges need to continue to experiment with innovative and promising practices in student services and instruction that will facilitate the links between high school and college for students. This includes the development of better diagnostic assessments to determine the specific areas where students need additional work. It also includes finding ways to accelerate students’ progress through basic skills development, and more effective delivery of counseling services.
  • For many states, it would be helpful to reach agreement on common placement assessments statewide, so as to facilitate the development of unified messages to students and families about the level of preparation needed for college. However, it is crucial to develop statewide agreement around a better set of policies. The current assessments being used in California are not diagnostic in helping students know what specific areas they need to focus on.

In addition to these steps, students and parents need to demand clearer messages, information, and activities that connect high schools and community colleges. Some of the students we spoke with had received clear information about how to prepare for public universities in California. Middle school and high school students need to hear the same messages about the academic rigor of community colleges.

Thad Nodine is an independent researcher and writer working with WestEd in San Francisco. One Shot Deal was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with additional support from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation.

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