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In August, the organization that administers the ACT reported that only 39 percent of the members of the class of 2013 who took the college entrance exam met three or more of the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, science, and math. Almost one-third did not meet any. And those were the ones who took the test. There were plenty more who didn’t intend to go to college and wouldn’t have taken the exam at all.

In an era where most of our high school graduates are not really ready for higher education, there is much to be said for community college as a means to prepare them either for a four-year degree or a career. Unfortunately, community colleges often fail to live up to their potential. Ann Hulbert chronicles some of the problems that plague the system in a piece in the current issue of the Atlantic:

The associate’s degree is nominally a two-year credential, and the system is proud of its transfer function, sending students onward to four-year schools, as juniors, to pursue a bachelor’s degree—the goal that 80 percent of entrants say they aspire to. Reality, however, typically confounds that tidy timeline. In urban community colleges like the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent. Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.

Community college administrators often counter that—contrary to the polling--many of their students just come for a course or two, that they want to acquire a particular skill that they can use in their job, and they are not really looking for a degree. But there are significant number of students who do want a degree and fail to get one.

Hulbert finds one school that is doing a good job of helping them toward that goal. And, to be honest, it’s not rocket science. She tells the story of a student, Daquan McGee, an ex-con who served two years for attempted robbery, enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s ASAP program:

McGee would have to enroll full-time in the fall, he was told; part-time attendance was not permitted. Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for a monthly drill: lining up in one of the long hallways in the main campus building to receive a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.

In other words, the community college population is generally a group of students who didn’t do very well in school the first time around. They never learned how to manage their time or study for tests or give their full attention to school. The key to making them succeed is not offering them the greatest flexibility in terms of the time needed to complete a degree or the number of choices in majors and classes. It’s having faculty and administrators constantly monitoring students—doing what high school failed to do. As Hulbert sensibly concludes:

ASAP’s structure and no-nonsense style invite accusations of paternalism—precisely what community colleges have been eager to avoid in the college-for-all era. Yet the prevailing model, a Chinese-menu-style panoply of options without any real guidance, has not empowered academically insecure students: it has failed them. Good information, well-structured expectations, timely counsel, confidence-instilling directives—these are essential ingredients of education, and they are all the more important for marginal students and for those blazing a trail to college for the first time in their family’s history.

 Sometimes paternalism works.

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