Focus, Higher Education, and Technology

Community colleges use innovation to stay competitive

August 27, 2012
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LANSING — Community colleges are finding new ways to compete with for-profit colleges to enroll and retain more part-time and working students.

Those efforts, including one at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, come at a time when community college enrollments are dipping while for-profit enrollments are rising.

Over the past year, enrollment at community colleges dropped for the first time in several years, from a high of 260,179 in 2010 to 250,399 now, according to the Michigan Community College Association.

However, enrollment in the state’s degree-granting, for-profits rose from 21,185 in 2004 to 30,193 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Donald Heller, dean of the Michigan State University College of Education and an expert on higher education policy, said the growth of for-profits like the University of Phoenix and Everest Institute is largely due to their flexibility.

“In almost every case, the community college will be cheaper and offer the same financial aid,” Heller said. “But whether the student can finish the program is an important consideration, also. In some cases, a student may be better off paying a higher price and borrowing more to attend the for-profit, if they can complete the program much faster than attending community college.”

Mike Hansen, president of the Community College Association, said ease of enrollment, flexible scheduling and the ability to complete a program at one’s own pace make for-profit schools attractive.

“A lot of students would rather sign up and start next week rather than have to wait for the start of the next semester,” Hansen said.

“That is where the for-profits have an advantage. People who are looking to get into a new career but have children or work full time would rather choose a program that works with their schedule.”

Patricia Fischer, president of the Michigan Association of Career Colleges and Schools, said her organization has noted an increase in the number of transfers from community colleges to for-profits.

“About 50 percent of students in our schools went to community colleges at some point,” Fischer said. “Flexibility is one of the big reasons, but our schools also do a better job helping individual students find jobs.

“Students are overwhelmed by the immensity of community colleges,” Fischer continued. “Our schools are a lot smaller so students can receive a lot more attention and resources.”

Seeing the need to match wits with for-profit universities, community colleges like Kellogg are implementing innovative ways to attract and retain new students.

Kellogg has a new program to help students more quickly complete remedial courses in math, English and writing.

Its open entry/open exit program allows them to begin and finish certain courses at any time during the school year. They can also complete the courses at their own pace.

“Students may be working around day care for their children or around a busy work schedule, or maybe they have limited transportation,” Kellogg President Dennis Bona said. “With open entry/open exit, they can come in whenever they need to during the week and on weekends to get their work done.

“We want to fit into their schedule, not the other way around,” Bona said.

Bona said 200 of the 1,000 students enrolled in remedial courses have signed up for the option and the program is already showing results. Since it began in July 2011, students have successfully completed courses at a 20 percent higher rate than its traditional counterpart.

“A lot of these students were working or got laid off and have spent many years away from school. For them, it’s more of a refresher,” Bona said. “And we’re seeing that they have been brushing up and accelerating through to other classes.”

Bona said Kellogg hopes to increase the number of remedial students in the program to 60 percent and expand open entry/open exit to other subjects soon.

“A lot of other schools will be watching to see if this works, and I expect it to be picked up by others soon,” Bona said.

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