Success Rates of Students at Community Colleges

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Inside the counseling office at Lorain County Community College, Karen Kelley needs help planning her spring class schedule.

OK, Karen. How many hours are you taking this spring?

The 26-year-old single mother starts her fifth semester in January.

All the classes that I will be taking for spring semester will be via internet or cable just because of the convenience.

And the baby is due...?

June 6.

Kelley's expecting a second child this summer, but if she can keep up her class schedule and her 3.3 GPA, she expects to graduate with an associate degree in public administration in another year or so. She'll be only the second person in her family to earn a college degree. It's no small feat after having dropped out of high school as a sophomore.

Karen Kelley: I think it's overwhelming for anybody who's coming into something that they know nothing about. Just kind of scared whether I was capable of doing it.

She's what the college calls a "non-traditional student." With all of their commitments and remedial needs, it takes them longer than the standard two years to graduate. At Lorain, only 14% of students receive their degree within three years. So today, the non-traditional, 3-plus-year student has become the norm.

Ray Kniesel: We have a lot of single parents. Transportation becomes an issue. Trying to work around their work schedule and still take classes becomes an issue. Babysitting issues. It's not like the traditional student that goes to college and they go to class during the week, and they worry about who they date on the weekend.

Ray Kniesel is the coordinator of the "Opening Doors" program at LCCC. Lorain is one of five schools across the country participating in a PROGRAM funded by a non-profit New York City research firm. The idea of "Opening Doors" is to give students extra attention and services plus a $150 stipend each semester to help increase the success rate for low income students.

Ray Kniesel: Just the other day I got a phone call from a student that I hadn't heard from in a while. I'd left a couple of messages. And she called back and she had run into some trouble and had spent a couple of weeks incarcerated. She was panicky.

But, Kniesel says, he was able to work with that student - and her instructors - to salvage some of her academic progress, and it looks like she's ready to get back to school.

Ray Kniesel: Right now she's scheduled to come back, repeat a couple of courses. Hopefully, she's learned what not to do, to avoid some of the trouble she's been in.

So far, students in the "Opening Doors" program seem to be getting better grades, completing more classes and staying in college. The program is scheduled to end next December, but organizers plan to follow the students' academic progress over the long haul to see if "Opening Doors" can improve graduation rates by as much as 5 percentage points.

At Cuyahoga Community College - Ohio's first and now its largest community college - officials are devising their own strategy for boosting that school's graduation rate. Only 5% of Tri-C's students earn a degree within 3 years.

Rosemary Jones: Obviously, we consider it low. On the other hand, it is not out of line with other urban two year colleges.

Rosemary Jones, executive director of research and planning at Tri C says the college is using a new tag line in its advertising campaign. Now, students are urged not only to "take a course" but also to "earn a degree." And earning that degree, Jones says, - or at least getting closer to it - gives many students the impetus and the tools to push on academically.

Rosemary Jones: We're learning that the more a student completes at a 2-year college, the more successful they'll be at the 4-year college. They get more discipline over time on how to study. There can be a transition issue. So the more mature a student can become, the more experience they can have with their self-discipline, with their time management, the more successful they can be at a university.

Though Tri-C's graduation rate may seem grim, 11% of its students transfer to another college or university. 35% remain enrolled past the three year mark, many of them still hoping to graduate.

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