Government and Higher Education

Community colleges seek better ways to prepare students

Students coming from the work force often need specialized help.

October 4, 2013
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LANSING — Almost half of students entering community college find themselves unprepared, according to a new Government Accountability Office report, and new strategies are being formed to better equip students for success.

Forty-two percent of students were not ready for regular courses, said GAO, an investigatory arm of Congress. As a result, they were required to take developmental classes.

There are multiple ways to test college readiness, said Mike Hansen, president of Michigan Community College Association. Typically, the ACT test is used to measure knowledge, and many community colleges are finding a large majority of their students are not “college ready” in most subject areas, he said.

Community colleges accommodate roughly 40 percent of undergraduates in the U.S., with students of “varied needs,” said the report.

Community colleges aren’t filled only with recent high school graduates, said Hansen.

“A lot of students in community college are returning students, like adults in the work force that are coming back,” said Hansen. “We often find that it’s not necessarily that they don’t know the information, but they’ve forgotten the information, especially in the math area.”

Students who are not prepared for college classes cannot simply be “thrown” into them and expected to succeed, he said.

The current strategy of offering developmental courses is efficient at teaching information that should have been learned in the past. However, those students who may only need a refresher on one subject are held back by this strategy, he said.

That’s what has prompted the association to look at other models to design a new strategy.

“We’re working with a lot of different models that try to find the best practices in developmental education — such as modularizing — so that students only take certain portions of that entire class,” Hansen said.

Modular classes that cater to a student’s specific weaknesses would allow for faster graduation by teaching only what they don’t know instead of requiring them to take an entire course about something they’ve learned previously.

However, Jay Cooper, a professor of education at Grand Valley State University, said he worries modular learning may not properly prepare students who want to go on to a four-year university. Cooper said the modularizing strategy may not thoroughly cover missing skills.

“If you are in a history course, how are you going to address (students’) lower level of math and writing skills?”

Hansen said many colleges also offer “contextualized learning, where you teach the developmental education alongside the academic program.”

“Let’s say someone wants to be a welder or an auto mechanic. Instead of making them take a semester of developmental math or English, you incorporate the developmental instruction along with the regular coursework so that they’re accelerating concurrently.”

Montcalm Community College found the idea of contextualized learning to be effective for student success, said Robert Ferrentino, president of the college.

The college has been trying out new strategies and, after seeing preliminary reports, decided contextualized learning was the best choice, said Ferrentino.

The GAO reported that fewer than 25 percent of community college students go on to graduate or receive a certificate.

“The bottom line is that there’s lots of evidence that people who aren’t ready for college work can’t just be thrown into a college setting and expect to be successful,” Hansen said. “It’s a complicated issue.”

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