Community colleges are the gateway to postsecondary education for nearly half of all undergraduate students in the United States, including many minority, low-income, and first-generation students. Hobsons recently sponsored the 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Community College Presidents, A Study by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed, which aims to understand how community college presidents perceive the challenges facing two-year institutions in the United States.

While the report offers tremendous insight into today’s realities for community colleges, three key takeaways underscore the important student success and completion conversation that is taking place across the country:

1. A strong advising program can give students the support necessary to make informed degree-planning choices.
Student indecision as to major or career options is a primary barrier to students persisting and earning their degrees. According to the Inside Higher Ed report, 56 percent of two-year college presidents agreed or strongly agreed that having too many course choices is an obstacle to students’ degree completion. Students should make college and career choices that align with their personal goals and interests, but institutions also need to make it clearer to students what they need to do to graduate.

What are forward-thinking institutions doing to address this issue? Some, like Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) just outside Washington, DC, are turning to data and analytics to inform their student retention and graduation initiatives.

According to a report by The National Journal, NOVA “recently introduced an advising system – complete with digital tools – designed to help [advisors] keep students on track to earning a degree. It's one of many changes the college has made after reviewing both internal data on first-time students and national research. And it makes NOVA part of a trend among colleges and universities to embrace data analytics as a way of pinpointing the obstacles that prevent so many students from reaching graduation.”

While too many course choices may be an obstacle to student success, we must also consider that today’s students demand more academic flexibility. Schools with strong advising programs provide opportunities to build quality advisor-student relationships, and help students understand their course options and navigate their choices so they can see a clear path to success.

2. Stackable credentials and structured pathways encourage student persistence.
For community college students who seek to gain an academic credential or transfer to complete their degrees at another institution, providing structure can help them succeed. Inside Higher Ed’s report suggests that community colleges see stackable credentials as a strategy for putting students on a path to success, as nearly 90 percent of presidents said their colleges offer such options.

Stackable credentials form a pathway for students to acquire an industry certification, complete a valuable course sequence, or even finish a four-year degree and beyond by linking a series of certificates in a specific field so each credential builds on the previous one. By seeing what courses are needed and when to take them in order to obtain a desired credential, students can eliminate unnecessary courses, reduce their costs, and finish more quickly.

Similarly, structured pathways have clearly defined requirements, courses, and degree timelines that make it easier for students to make choices that move them forward toward completion. Institutions that offer personalized degree-based roadmaps to graduation empower students to manage their academic futures and allow administrators to make strategic advising decisions. As institutions’ offerings expand and as students cycle in and out of higher education, helping students understand their options and navigate their choices becomes even more critical. 

3. Closing the skills gap requires support from the higher education and business communities.
According to the survey, 77 percent of community college presidents believe the skills gap is a serious problem in their local communities, and 89 percent are working with local businesses to close that gap. Today’s postsecondary students confront extraordinary pressures to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Regardless of educational attainment (e.g., grade, degree, etc.) and intellectual capability, students are consistently faced with balancing the need to build knowledge and skills that are relevant to their aspirations and to the demands of work, school, and their personal lives. Thoughtful, holistic advising – often supported by technology – is a meaningful way to ensure that students are able to connect the dots between their personal and academic goals and the expectations placed by the industries they wish to join. 

At Hobsons, we’re excited about the opportunity we have to share these insights with the education community, and to foster collaboration among K-12 institutions, community colleges, and four-year institutional partners to help address critical issues facing students today. 

For the complete survey results, download the full report here

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