The Issue of Student Retention in Community Colleges

It is common for students to decide to either pause or discontinue their higher education plans within the first couple of years of pursuing their degrees. However, this is becoming a problem within the community college system, according to a recent article in U.S. News. Community colleges with low retention rates create debt, not only for students, but also for the state and local programs that exist to fund degree-seeking individuals. According to the article, low retention rates over the past five years led to a debt of over $4 billion, a result of the federal aid and increased government spending used on dropouts.

The retention rate in community colleges is so low, one in four current students are not enrolled for the following semester, cited a study performed by the National Student Clearinghouse. However, the studies explored by U.S. News do not account for certain factors that affect that number, which can lead to skewed results. For instance, once such factor is the number of students that return to higher education after a period of non-enrollment. The data does not account for those who drop out only to complete their degrees at a later time, thereby utilizing the federal and local aid that was initially spent on their education, rather than creating unnecessary debt. The data is also skewed by the fact that many first-time students are urged by community college advisors to declare a major, even if they do not plan to complete a degree, as only degree-seeking students can acquire federal aid.

Even taking those factors into consideration, student retention is still a hot topic for community college and financial aid officials. According to the AIR researchers, student retention should be made a priority across community colleges. A potential solution is reorganizing schedules to include a block set of classes and shorter times in between terms. The idea behind these changes is that students will be less likely to skip classes and bow out of terms when faced with back-to-back scheduling. This may also be more appealing to students, as they will be able to finish their degrees in a faster manner, thereby taking less time away from their future careers or other obligations.

Classes in developmental mathematics have also played a part in scaring students away, according to a recent webinar by the Carnegie Foundation. It is suggested that schools reevaluate their math classes in order to keep students enrolled.

States themselves have begun to take action against the pit of debt created by student dropouts by budgeting funds based on performance. AIR also recommends directing funding to schools based on their success at student retention. However, this push has the potential to hurt, rather than aid community colleges.

The ultimate result of the increasing dropout rates and the increase in excessive spending that results from poor retention is that community colleges must find methods to tackle these issues. By focusing more intently on improving student retention, community colleges can save money and prevent increases in government debt.

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