Now that you have committed to helping students and employees overcome barriers, your colleges, businesses, and civic groups must build new structures to help them do so. That means establishing clearer pathways to degrees and offering new modes of instruction, effective advising, and flexible schedules.
Programs must become more student-centered. In general, this means students must be given more assistance as they seek their credentials. For example: accelerated programs, credit for learning acquired on the job and in other non-academic settings, and more and better developmental education.
Guide students along the path to completion
Traditional ways of delivering education and training do not work for “non-traditional” students. Under the typical “cafeteria model,” students have too many options, too little information, and too little insight into their own skills and interests when choosing courses and majors. They often put off hard choices like choosing a major, and they don’t know what courses to take or in what order to take them. They frequently have problems transferring credits from one institution to another. (See the “Transfer” section below.)
To address these problems, your community can start by adopting guided pathways, roadmaps that also put up guardrails that help keep students on them. With pathways, academic programs are clearly defined, grouped under career clusters—or “meta majors”—attached to coherent trajectories. Students who are undecided at first are assisted in choosing an area of study with a default curriculum that they can modify to fit their interests. The college provides students with career counseling and consistent, structured advising, and clear learning outcomes. And the maps serve as valuable and continuous reference points for advisors and faculty, so they can monitor student progress and intervene when action is needed. In effect, your colleges shift from the cafeteria model to more of a planned dinner menu.
Here are some ways that talent-focused communities are creating pathways:
- Southeastern Indiana has created the Powerhouse Credentials Crosswalk, a set of pathways that clearly and deliberately connect students with more than 30 industry-recognized credentials and courses of study through branches of Ivy Tech, the state’s community college system. Looking at the map, a student who wants to be a welder, for instance, can see clearly where he or she can pick up what credential, what skills and competencies will be gained, and what credits will be awarded. Creating this alignment took many months of work and cooperation between the college and local employers.
- In Las Vegas, a guided pathways model includes term-by-term academic maps that lay down clear milestones and spell out the precise sequence of courses students must take to earn an associate degree in two years. The maps now are manually adjusted only when a student falls short of completing 30 credits each year, but colleges are working to intervene much sooner, automatically mapping 15 credits per semester, outlining prerequisites and milestones within career pathways with high enrollments of underserved populations. The maps clearly lay out the recommended college courses or training/credentialing programs that align with students’ work experience, current employment, or career aspirations.
- Also in Las Vegas, instead of having students immediately choose among 180 majors, The College of Southern Nevada now requires all new students to select one among 11 clusters of academic programs—or “meta majors”—that have common or related content. Students complete common general education courses, such as English and math, during their first semester, that meet general education requirements across degrees and within a meta major so that they don’t lose momentum or accumulate excess credits
- In Denver, four colleges are working together to build clear roadways to credentials in five high-demand industries: information technology, business, health, advanced manufacturing, and engineering. They have mapped out templates and formally contracted with each other (entered “articulation agreements”) across all institutions, to help students complete their certificates and easily transfer. In the healthcare pathway, for instance, the institutions are stacking certificates for certified nurse’s aides and medical assistants into an associate degree in applied science. They are also working to create a pathway with a major university hospital. Students can start on the pathways as early as high school or as late as after completing community college.
Accelerate the programs
Today’s older, working students are motivated, disciplined—and in a hurry. At a typical rate of one course each semester, it can easily take a student nearly seven years to earn an associate degree—a prospect that keeps many from even trying.
Here are some ways to speed things up:
- Compressed classes: At Shasta College in Shasta County, California, a program called ACE compresses classes from the usual 17 weeks into just seven. Because students need more predictability in their schedules (to accommodate responsibilities like childcare and work), Shasta always holds the classes on the same days, giving students a choice of morning or evening. There is an online component as well. These are not watered-down courses; the requirements and workload are the same. And studies show that for disciplined students, acceleration works. At Shasta, the passing rates for ACE students are better even for students overall—89 percent vs. 79 percent.
- Hybrid classes: In Detroit, four-year Wayne State University and two-year Macomb Community College are revising their academic course offerings to better meet the needs of adult students by providing more evening and accelerated classes, online and hybrid offerings, and year-round enrollment. To ensure that reforms are student-directed, they employ feedback from focus-group participants, who represent predominantly low-income and Black adult students
- Flexible classes: In Southwest Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University’s adult degree completion initiative allows those with some college to complete a bachelor’s degree faster, in a variety of formats, to accommodate their schedules and outside responsibilities. The program, which targets individuals who completed 30 or more credit hours but did not graduate, offers traditional courses on the main campus as well as accelerated online and flexible courses off-site. These are paired with new approaches to admission, enrollment, advising, and academic support. Since 2018, the college has enrolled over 100 students through the program.
Encourage students to earn credits faster
Most college students don’t take the number of courses they need to graduate on time. And to receive financial aid, they need only take 12 credits per semester. Consider signing on to “15 to Finish,” an initiative of Complete College America that encourages students to take 15 credits per semester or 30 per year. The course load can be challenging (and sometimes impossible) for students with full-time jobs, but when students can manage it, they have enjoyed proven success.
- New York and Fresno are among the communities embracing this strategy. Full-time enrollment at Fresno is based on at least 12 units per semester, but a new system, dedicated to building momentum among students, will encourage 15 per semester or 30 per year. Some of the colleges are using Complete College America campaign materials. Others are encouraging 15 to Finish as part of their Graduation Initiative 2025.
- In Racine, The University of Wisconsin-Parkside is seeing big returns in its efforts to get more students to embrace 15 to Finish. In 2013, less than 20 percent of first-year students took 15 credits a semester. By 2018, 40 percent were doing so.
Expand opportunities for dual enrollment
As you work to transform the college experience, you can also address problems farther up the pipeline. One way is by expanding dual enrollment, an arrangement under which students earn college credit—even associate degrees—while still enrolled in high school. It provides a powerful boost: A study of dual enrollment at the University of Texas System found that students’ exposure to just one dual credit course significantly improved their chances for college success.
Students in the Rio Grande Valley, for instance, account for more than 20 percent of the state’s dual credit enrollment. And in some valley schools, one of every four students earns an associate degree before graduation. In an area trying to turn around a remarkably low rate of college-going and completion, dual enrollment is having a marked impact on attainment.
Adopt and encourage policies for reverse transfer
Many students transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions before receiving an associate degree. That’s fine if they end up getting their bachelor’s degree as planned. But many don’t finish the four years, which leaves them with no degree at all, even if they had accumulated enough credits to get a two-year diploma. Under “reverse transfer” arrangements, students who transfer before their community college graduation can have some credits at the four-year college transferred back to the two-year school so they can at least get an associate degree. The arrangement benefits both the students and the two-year colleges: It gives students a fallback if, as life happens, they fall off track their junior or senior years. And it gives two-year colleges the credit they deserve for giving students what they needed to move on.
A helpful resource for developing reverse transfer policies is the “Degrees When Due” initiative of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The program helps participating institutions improve their student completion rates by sharing data-driven strategies and tactics through a free, web-based platform.
Here are some examples of communities using reverse transfer:
- In Richmond, 392 students have received associate degrees through reverse transfer policies. This accomplishment required colleges to conduct thorough degree auditing, credit evaluation, and outreach. To make the process easier, transfer applications to a participating four-year college were amended to include consent for transcript exchange for the purpose of reverse transfer. The backbone organization Graduate RVA is also co-authoring a reverse transfer toolkit for use by other institutions.
- Oakland University in Detroit is a leader in proactively awarding reverse transfer credit, and Macomb Community College and Henry Ford College are participating in Degrees When Due. Wayne State University is working to automate the reverse transfer of credits on a per-semester basis so that the university routinely updates the students’ former institutions on their credit accumulation. Automation means that institutions can continuously award students sub-baccalaureate credentials as soon as they have earned them.
Award credit for prior learning
To attract more students and move them more quickly toward a degree, consider establishing system-wide policies of accepting credit for knowledge and skills that students have acquired outside the classroom, as demonstrated through certifications, exams, licenses, military experience, and the like.
Among the helpful resources for learning about CPL is the American Council on Education (ACE), which has conducted surveys on CPL policies and practices at a wide variety of U.S. colleges and employers. The survey found a high overall success rate (82 percent) for individuals earning academic credit or employer recognition for prior learning. But it also noted that students encounter a lack of information about their CPL options and that industry benefits may be under-used because of a lack of incentives or services to support employees’ educations. These are issues to consider as your colleges and employers develop policies for CPL.
Another good resource is the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national non-profit that works with employers and higher education institutions to make it easier for adults to get education and training. Its Workforce and Economic Development teams collaborate with community leaders to build talented workforces, leveraging the expertise of national consultants and peer-to-peer learning. CAEL can help your community create and implement workforce development strategies and build your knowledge and capacity.
Here are some examples of communities working to advance CPL:
- At CUNY colleges in New York City, faculties are being trained on how to develop replicable models for portfolio assessment and on how to improve their use and the use of competency-based exams. CUNY is working toward a performance-based admission process that allows students to be admitted based on demonstration of ability.
- In Southwest Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University is working with a small group of faculty members to implement a program of prior learning experience.
- And Detroit partners have identified prior learning assessment as a top priority.
Get serious about student advising
Just creating pathways is not enough; most students need knowledgeable individuals to guide them down these lanes. College advising has traditionally been a hit-or-miss proposition, often entrusted to faculty or others with no interest or training in the work. And many students get virtually no advising at all. To boost completion, work to make advising more “intrusive,” for instance requiring a certain number of student interactions (both in person and through emails and texts), regularly setting and measuring goals, and reducing caseloads, which can easily be as high as 1 advisor to 800 students. (An example is provided in the “Transfer” section below.)
Here are some ways colleges are enhancing student advising and orientation
- In Los Angeles, California State University Northridge has launched the Matador Advising Hub, the institution’s first centralized advising office. A faculty lead directs advising efforts to promote persistence in the first year—reducing the number of students who face academic disqualification. By serving as the primary advisor during this critical year, the Hub communicates with students more proactively and consistently. It reaches out to students through emails and phone calls but also uses newer strategies like text messaging and online chat. With these methods, the support organization can connect with the students at earlier points of academic distress.
- New York, CUNY’s “test flight” program, required for some of its students, is a weeklong online learning simulation that allows students to experience the virtual learning environment before they start classes.
- The Detroit Regional Chamber helped establish a “pop-up” drop-in center for adult students in collaboration with Detroit Parent Network and the College Access Network. An advisor meets one-on-one with returning adult students and hosts group workshops on topics relevant to these students. The chamber is working with other partners and philanthropists to create a permanent facility for traditional-age and adult students. At Wayne State University, a specially designated coach fosters community among the adult students. Monthly events, webinars, and other online meetings cover topics such as financial literacy, combining school and parenthood, returning to the classroom, and library skills.
- Nashville State Community College’s three “Reconnect Cafés” link adult students with resources (both on and off campus) that help them overcome their particular barriers to success. And mobile Reconnect Cafés bring those resources right to students’ workplaces, community-based organizations, even jails. Along with coffee and snacks, the students get community support and academic coaching. The cafes track and support 900 adults who are returning to school or completing a degree or credential, reaching out at critical times during the semester or before classes begin.
- Albuquerque partners are developing an advising plan with community-based organizations such as Catholic Charities, which will hold monthly office hours, the local adult learning center, and a consortium of non-profits and public agencies that serve young people who have been involved with the justice system.
Reform developmental education
Developmental, or remedial, education is where far too many college students start and stop. Here is a common scenario: Steered by the results of a standardized placement course, a student who wants to study business administration is placed first in a remedial math or English course (or both) for which he receives absolutely no college credit. His degree plans now delayed for several months, he gets discouraged and quits. A promising new approach is to embed remediation into first-year credit-bearing work. In this way, students start earning credits immediately, they maintain momentum, and they get the help they need in a contextualized way. You can boost completion rates by embracing this approach.
Here are some examples:
- The Community College of Philadelphia found that students in an accelerated developmental English program significantly outperformed students in regular developmental English as well as students who placed directly into college-level work.
- In California, a new law effectively eliminates developmental education, and it requires that colleges use multiple measures (not just a standardized test) to place students in gateway courses. In Fresno, the law has created even greater urgency for colleges to create co-requisite courses. The Central Valley Higher Education Commission, which had already formed a math pathways task force, has deployed math liaisons to college faculty to gain insights for professional development. Data coaches are helping math faculty identify the right metrics to analyze their work.
- In Detroit, drawing on the flexibility of Macomb Community College’s associate of general studies degree—the institution’s most popular—Wayne State University is creating a bachelor of general studies degree to serve as a kind of “completion college,” making it faster and easier for returning students to get their degrees.
- Racine, Wisconsin is working to better align curriculum and workforce needs to boost student performance in math. Gateway Technical College has created three math pathways (quantitative reasoning, college technical math, and applied math), along with a model that accelerates student learning in quantitative reasoning and algebra. The college has also embedded gateway math courses within for-credit courses, and accelerated learning in English. At the same time, the school is developing multiple measures to determine where students should be placed, moving away from standardized tests and in favor of high school GPAs. (Students with GPAs of least 2.6 will be placed directly into college-level, for-credit courses.)
- Dayton is working to reduce the time students spend in developmental education by assigning every student an advisor who specializes in that student’s field of study and by customizing developmental education to fit students’ needs and circumstances. Colleges use multiple measures to determine placement, including the math courses best suited to students’ majors. Institutions also offer alternative paths to college readiness, based on students’ individual aptitudes, learning styles, and schedules. As a result of these reforms, 49 percent of new full-time students at Sinclair Community College successfully completed their required math courses in 2018, compared to just 31 percent in 2016. Reforms at Wright State University are also producing gains in course completion.