Innovative community colleges focus on real student success

Innovative community colleges focus on real student success

The news sounded good at first: My 18-year-old niece is enrolling in the local technical college to become a phlebotomist, a person who draws blood from patients. But my enthusiasm turned to skepticism the more I investigated.

On a closer look, it turns out that it provides no clear way for her to leverage the phlebotomy program toward further education or career advancement. That’s in contrast to many others, which use shorter-term credentials that can be earned all at once or more slowly over time. These credentials “stack,” building toward a longer-term credential.

The phlebotomy program doesn’t have that capacity for growth. This got me thinking about what might be possible if students always had a path forward – and better yet, if that path included trails that branched off; creating new opportunities and possibilities along the way.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve had conversations with leaders of community and technical colleges, most recently attending a day-long meeting on “Supporting Exceptional Community Colleges” sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

As the name suggests, those in the room represented schools that are the exception, not the rule. These were some of the nation’s most innovative colleges, those focused on disrupting the status quo and preparing students for success in education and the workforce.

What struck me about their work was their commitment to creating and maintaining multilevel pathways. They support students and their communities through the work-and-learn ecosystem, creating roadmaps that give students the flexibility to choose their own adventure. The educators at the meeting shared several pieces of advice for those who seek to develop such programs. For example:

  • Create the optimal conditions to stack credentials within programs of study; each credential has labor market value and the ability to ‘stack’ into the next postsecondary award.
  • Design a small mandatory intervention such as a course or an orientation program that eases students’ entry into the program and the college. To increase the likelihood of student success, the intervention should include academic, personal, and career components. For example, Des Moines Area Community College offers a one-credit student development course for all students in which they set the course and direction for their time at the college. This engagement has resulted in a 17 percent increase in retention during the first semester.
  • Engage employers and four-year universities in advisory committees; feeding back information to inform program design and showcasing the variety of pathways available to students with employers as well as seamless transitions to further education.
  • Move from one-on-one employer relationships to a community focus that creates a regional employer pipeline. A good example of this approach can be seen at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, which serves both students and employers — highlighting career opportunities along the way.

These associated pathways aren’t just innovative; they’re effective. As the world of post-high school learning continues to evolve, we must continue to highlight promising practices and provide proof of success. We must point to the community and technical colleges in which innovation is the norm and students and the community are at the center of it all. That way, my niece, and so many others like her will always have a path forward no matter where their journeys take them.

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