How to Get Your Kids Through College

Once students enter the 'pipeline,' can educational plumbers stop the leaks?

Austin Community College President Robert Aguero
Austin Community College President Robert Aguero (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Two metaphors are currently zipping around the education world like the latest slang in a high school cafeteria. To ensure the economic future of Texas, runs one nostrum, we need to "create a seamless transition" from high school to college. And that means, goes another, "building an education pipeline," in which students flow from elementary school into higher education in ever-increasing numbers. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, for example, has called for 500,000 new college students by 2015, those students to come mostly from families or regions where few before them have gone on to higher ed.

The institutional key to the fulfillment of such wistful metaphors, everyone agrees, will be community colleges. In contrast to four-year institutions like UT-Austin, which in its pursuit of "excellence" intends to cap enrollment at 48,000, community colleges must serve this army of new collegegoers. It's a daunting task, but has the support of both education wonks and business pragmatists, who worry that a growing population of young Texans without educational credentials beyond a high school diploma will drag the state into economic ruin.

To forestall that disaster, much midnight oil is being burnt over how to get more kids into college. Austin ISD is knee-deep in a high school "redesign" whose goal is to "pipeline" students into college and careers. Also to that end, the district just launched a program through which every AISD graduate will get a letter of acceptance to ACC along with his or her diploma. There are more pipes being laid, it seems, than an offshore drilling operation. Seamlessness abounds. But there's a big problem with this vision, one that's getting significantly less public attention: The seams are ripping, the pipelines springing leaks, after students enroll in college.

To put it plainly, the majority of students who enter community colleges never make it out the other side. Of course, this isn't a problem limited to two-year institutions. At UT, for example, the six-year graduation rate is 74%. But according to a recent national survey of 92,000 community college students, only about a quarter of community college students who say they intended to finish a degree or certificate in fact did so within six years. This is a huge problem, says UT researcher Kay McClenney, who led the study. "It's important that more [students] both enter higher education and that they get degrees," she said. "Community colleges are doing good work now, but most know they need to do it better."

ACC is no different. Among the two-thirds of ACC students who are in academic transfer programs and intend to switch to a four-year school, only about 60% actually do so. But among "workforce" students – those who intend to achieve an associate's degree or certificate – just 38% of full-time students finish in three years, and only 18% of part-timers finish in the same time period. It's understandable that part-timers will take more than three years, but other numbers indicate that too many fizzle out entirely. According to the most recent HECB retention figures, 40% of ACC's 29,156 students left higher education entirely – they didn't graduate, transfer, or return to ACC – during the year studied (Fall 2002 to Fall 2003). In that same year, 16% transferred to a university or another community college, and just 6% earned a degree or certificate. (See chart, "Student Outcomes, Fall 2002 to Fall 2003.")

College administrators argue that the situation isn't as bad as the numbers make it seem. Their institutions serve a diverse population, and many students want to just pop in for a class or two for, say, professional enrichment. But while continuing education is an important part of the community college mission, UC-Berkeley professor W. Norton Grubb, who studies community colleges, finds this argument disingenuous. "There is a battle between researchers like me and community college people who say, 'All these other people really didn't want to complete,'" he said. "The latter view is pretty misleading. Almost everyone who goes to a community college says they want to transfer; the ones who don't, say they want to get an associate's degree. Very few people say they just want to get 12 credits and leave."

Nevertheless, Grubb and McClenney believe the numbers don't indicate failure on the part of the community colleges as much as the challenges facing the students who use them. They're older, often many years out of high school, with jobs and families to juggle. That means that most – 75% at ACC – squeeze in school part-time around an otherwise full life. Part-time study comes with challenges full-timers often don't face – because many choose to live near jobs rather than near class, for example, they end up commuting more. This is a problem at ACC, where certain classes are only offered at some of its seven campuses, so students have to run around town to finish a program. Student Tyesha Tanner, for example, works near her home in North Austin, but her courses currently are at ACC Riverside, in Montopolis. "That's $20 in gas every two, three days," she said. But worse than the cost in money is the cost in time. "My biggest challenge is I can't spend enough time with my daughter," she said. "If I'm not at work, I'm at school. If I'm not there, I'm doing homework. That leaves little time to play with her and teach her stuff."

So while it sounds flip to say that community college students fail to complete because they can't make college a top priority, the part-time student lifestyle does have real consequences. "Almost all community college students are working, and many have families," said Grubb. "If something in their carefully wrought schedules goes awry, schooling is the easiest to postpone."

Capital IDEA instructor Ted Rachofsky works with 
ACC student Linda Hanna.
Capital IDEA instructor Ted Rachofsky works with ACC student Linda Hanna. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

And for many, postponing becomes indefinite, and they – along with the Texas economy – fail to benefit from their educational investment. "If community college students take and finish a degree in a relatively high-wage field, the financial benefits are substantial," said Grubb. "If they don't complete, those benefits aren't there."

Thus, even if getting students from high school to college is important, so too is ensuring their collegiate success. ACC is by no means blind to this problem and is attempting to address the needs that lead students to give up. Most agree that more could be done – but they add that the responsibility to help students not only transition to college, but to finish once they've begun, is not ACC's alone.

The Remedial Treadmill

Jacob Garcia went to college by accident. In 1998, when the 19-year-old learned he was going to be a father, his girlfriend's mother handed him some scholarship forms and told him to get serious about his future. Garcia won a $3,500 scholarship from Advanced Micro Devices, the semiconductor company, and went off to college to study semiconducting manufacturing technology.

At least, he thought he was going to college. When he enrolled at ACC, he was shocked to discover he had to take assessment tests in reading, writing, and math before he could register for classes. Garcia, who had graduated from Elgin High School with a 3.5 GPA, bombed writing and math. He was assigned to noncredit "developmental" coursework – ACC's term for remedial – rather than credit courses toward his degree. "You finish high school," he recalled, "and then you take this test and find out you have to almost start all over again from ground one."

Garcia isn't alone – 30% of ACC students are enrolled in developmental courses at any given time. A particularly poorly prepared student may have to take up to three levels of developmental course-work each in reading, writing, and math. Moreover, some students fail their developmental courses: An ACC "effectiveness review" in 2003 found pass rates of developmental math courses ranging between 40% and 70%. Clearly, many of the ACC students who fizzle out are the ones getting bogged down in remedials.

The irony about remedials is that they're supposed to ensure college success by keeping academically unprepared students from becoming overwhelmed by college-level work. The test most students take, the THEA (Texas Higher Education Assessment), is mandated by the state of Texas as part of the Texas Success Initiative, passed by the Legislature in 2003. Students who pass can sign up for college work; those who fail take remedials. Nevertheless, the remedial courses themselves can lead to frustration for students who enroll semester after semester, yet find themselves no closer to a degree.

Garcia spent his whole scholarship on remedials. When it was gone, he said, "I freaked out. I didn't have any money stored away, so I decided not to go to school any more." That happens to too many students, says Grubb, who sees the demand for remedial ed as both a challenge and an opportunity. "Colleges are overwhelmed with the amount of remedial they have to do, but haven't done a great job about thinking hard about what would make good developmental ed teaching," said Grubb.

The key, many argue, is engagement.

College Boot Camp

Amy Guerra (shown here with her 5-year-old 
daughter, Zerra Rowe) is a student in ACC's Capital 
IDEA program.
Amy Guerra (shown here with her 5-year-old daughter, Zerra Rowe) is a student in ACC's Capital IDEA program. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

"Engagement" basically means getting community college students to feel like college students, rather than harried moms or dads who are trying to squeeze in algebra between work and laundry. In a sense, engagement means making the community college experience more fun and lively, with the kinds of social and intellectual extracurricular activities routinely available at four-year schools. ACC has just started work on that project: Last year, at the urging of students, the ACC board increased student fees from $1 per person to $1 per credit, in order to fund a beefed-up student life office. With its budget tripled to $600,000, the office is devoted to finding ways to make the college feel collegiate: lectures, clubs, activities, awards, and so on. Especially for students from noncollege backgrounds, these kinds of activities help them develop a college community that can serve as a social anchor to help keep them from drifting away. "We're going to be able to have a stronger orientation program to get students involved. We'll talk to them about clubs, and help get to know people," said Kathleen Christensen, associate vice president of student services.

But engagement can go further, into the way classes themselves are structured. ACC is working to develop "learning communities," especially in academic transfer areas like government and history, by requiring students to take certain courses concurrently, so that other students' faces become familiar. "Anything that involves a study group or students getting to know one another seems to improve retention," said Christensen.

But a program that goes even further is the College Preparation Academy, which Capital IDEA runs at ACC's Riverside campus. Capital IDEA is a nonprofit that spends a relatively large amount money – around $2,000 per student – on groups of around 30 CPA participants at a time. Because of the cost, it isn't a model ACC could realistically follow for all its students, unless the Legislature suddenly begins spending a whole lot more money on higher education. (Capital IDEA Executive Director Steve Jackobs argues that doing so would be more cost-effective over the long run, because with so few students succeeding in community colleges, the system "may be cheap, but it's not a particularly good value.") Nevertheless, the program does suggest ways to structure developmental education – or the first-year experience – that could also help engagement.

In its simplest sense, the College Preparatory Academy is a boot camp to pass the THEA: Over 12 weeks, students spend five hours a day getting up to speed in math, reading, and writing. At the end of the program, three-fourths of the participants pass the THEA and go straight into college-level work without getting sucked into the Developmental Coursework Bog of No Return. The remaining quarter usually have their load of required developmentals significantly reduced.

Making the program intensive, says Jackobs, also helps with confidence, motivation, and engagement, especially for students who struggled in high school. "A regular remedial class meets two or three times a week, but that's the same experience you weren't successful at before," he said. "But if you take that instruction and compress it and make it intensive, you've got a support mechanism."

Ted Rachofsky, who teaches developmental math for both regular ACC students and CPA, notices the difference. "I'm the same teacher I am at ACC and at Capital IDEA, but the fact that these people are in the math class together 12 hours a week makes them a supportive community," he said. "After two or three weeks, it all of a sudden becomes like a family, all learning to do math together. It just works better."

In addition, CPA participants are required to attend weekly "VIP" sessions where they discuss career skills and college success strategies. At a recent first session for a new group of women ranging in age from late teens to 30s, the students shared their fears: about math class being too hard, or finding the time to study when you have four kids and your husband is in Iraq. Throughout the session, instructors hammered the importance of swapping phone numbers and forming study groups. "You guys have to bond and get to know each other," said career counselor Janie Mendoza. "We are a family here. You have to make these connections."

Could ACC build on its current efforts to promote learning communities by offering some sort of intensive experience for all students needing developmental education? Obviously it would be a challenge: Capital IDEA gives scholarships and child care that enables its participants to attend full-time. However, if intensive prep courses were an option, some students might be willing to take out loans to get developmentals out of the way. That's something Jacob Garcia would recommend to any student. After deciding to drop out, he tripped over a Capital IDEA flyer, joined the CPA, and eventually earned his degree. "Some people say, 'I'll just take a couple classes,' and hope they make it through," Garcia said. "A lot of them are still there. You can't just go at it part-time. That doesn't work. You need to have dedication if you're going to make it."

Once he got going, Garcia loved ACC: He says he still stops by sometimes to visit. Nevertheless, he thinks he made it through because of his Capital IDEA experience, and the fact that his natural extroversion made him "not shy" about asking professors for extra help. ("Once I asked, a lot of them took me under their wings," he said.) For other students, Garcia thinks ACC should create a mentoring program, where students earn a tuition or book credit by helping entering students learn the ropes. "I look at my cousins who are graduating from high school right now, and they're going to need a bunch of help," he said. "They need to meet people, and hear testimonies from people who have made it. That's what keeps you focused on your dreams."

Student Outcomes, Fall 2002 to Fall 2003
<p>In a typical year, 40% of ACC's students drop 
out of higher education altogether. Although about a 
third of ACC's students are enrolled in technical 
programs that culminate in a degree or certificate, just 
over 6% finished such a program in 2002-03.
(Source: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 
Student Retention Report, Fall 2002 to Fall 2003)
Student Outcomes, Fall 2002 to Fall 2003

In a typical year, 40% of ACC's students drop out of higher education altogether. Although about a third of ACC's students are enrolled in technical programs that culminate in a degree or certificate, just over 6% finished such a program in 2002-03.
(Source: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Student Retention Report, Fall 2002 to Fall 2003)

McClenney, the UT researcher, agrees that vibrant extracurricular offerings alone can't ensure engagement and that rethinking course structure is a critical component. "If you were going to redesign first semester experience so students couldn't escape being engaged, what you would do?" she said. "You would build courses into learning communities. You would require students to participate in first-year seminar experience. You would create structured experiences so even part-timers get engaged. But you need to structure that experience by design. It's not going to happen by accident."

Show Them the Money

As engaged and motivated as students may be, many still face another staggering challenge: money. While ACC tuition is a relative bargain – 12 hours for an in-district student is $567 – that's still a hefty chunk of change for working families. And few community college students take out loans: At ACC, 27% of students get financial aid, and only about half is in the form of loans. Increasing retention, then, involves addressing the money question. "It helps if students go to school and work [part-time], rather than work and go to school," said Robert Aguero, who became ACC's president in June.

Unfortunately, many holding the government purse strings don't feel that way. Recent Bush administration changes to eligibility rules for federal Pell Grants for low-income families left 100,000 fewer students qualified. And in 2003, the Legislature defunded the TEXAS Grant program, which had paid tuition for low-income students who graduated high school with the recommended curriculum and who keep a 2.5 GPA. As a result, the plan ran out of money last fall, so 22,000 eligible students didn't get their checks. The program may be restored this session; this week Gov. Rick Perry called for combining the program with the B-On-Time loan program, which offers loans that don't have to be repaid if students graduate on time and with a B average.

Even if the state and federal governments turn their backs on students, Aguero believes communities can help fill the void. As vice-chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, he helped start a scholarship program called Rising Star. Funded by a $32 million endowment the college raised from local businesses, it promises full tuition to any high school graduate with a B average. The ACC foundation board is currently researching the kind of cash it would take to offer a similar deal to Austin graduates. Aguero is keen on the idea, especially because having a permanent foundation, free from the whims of politicians, is key to the "pipeline" idea.

"That would allow us to go into the schools early, early on, as early as sixth grade, and say that the money will be there when you graduate from high school," he said.

Chasing Dreams

In the meantime, ACC is already going into the high schools, most notably with its new College Connection program, which helps AISD students through the ACC application, financial aid paperwork, a THEA-substitute test, career counseling, and orientation sessions and tours of ACC campuses. The program lasts the entire spring semester of senior year, and it's all aimed at making college seem less big and scary. Of course, that causes another of those community college Catch-22s: Schools must try to balance making college seem easy and natural enough to not scare kids off, but not so easy that students enter with false expectations and leave with frustration.

"My little cousin and brother both got grants and went to college, thinking it was going to be easy," said Tyesha Tanner. "They both failed out. I think people don't know college isn't like high school. It's not a game or something to be taken lightly. It's not a walk in the park."

Nevertheless, much of the solution does lie in high schools. Successfully building a "pipeline" that washes more students straight to college will allow many to finish their formal educations before taking on family responsibilities. AISD's redesign can also play a role, as the administration and trustees strive to make graduates more college-ready, both through engaging career "majors" that give kids reason to stay in high school, and greater rigor in the basics that can help students need less remedial work. Of course, if it were easy to make every student an academic star, that would have happened long ago. So while it's likely that success will come slowly, it's a struggle that pays off. For example, Tanner, who at 23 knows what it's like to care for a 15-month-old while earning $10 an hour, is ready to do what it takes to graduate and become a surgical technician.

"I don't care – rain, shine, sleet, snow, I'm going to be at school," she said. "I want a house, and a better car, and be able to take time off work to take my daughter to Disneyland."

And Jacob Garcia, who went to college by accident, has since been promoted off the manufacturing floor and now works in account sales. The 25-year-old is now ready to move even higher: At night, he is working toward a B.S. in industrial technology from Texas State University, a task made more difficult because he and his wife, currently enrolled at ACC, share a car, in part to afford private school tuition for their son. "My father never told me school paid off. I just got a scholarship and did it," he said. "Now, I want to keep going, both for myself and to be a good role model for my son."

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community collegeseducation, Austin Community College, retention, Kay McClenney, Norton Grubb, Robert Aguero, Tyesha Tanner, Jacob Garcia, Kathleen Christiensen, Ted Rachofsky, Steve Jackobs, Capital IDEA, College Preparation Academy, TEXAS Grant

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