Community Colleges Try to Revamp Image to Keep Students

September 20, 2013 | The Wall Street Journal |  Link to article

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Community colleges, in a bid to boost graduation rates, are shedding their image as commuter campuses with big parking lots.

The two-year colleges, which offer everything from certificates in welding to associate degrees in computer science, are increasingly building student centers and developing housing options to keep students more connected to their schools. They are offering services like mental-health counseling to help students navigate life outside the classroom.

Northampton Community College student Jamie Gorman-Wenner with her daughters in the yard of their housing facility that caters to families.

"Commuters have been the bread and butter for community colleges," said Kim Linduska, executive vice president of six-campus Des Moines Area Community College, which began offering a housing option-through a contract with a local landlord-at its second Iowa campus this year. "As community colleges have grown and matured, many more of them have worked harder to attract students," she said.

About a quarter of community colleges offered housing in 2010, a figure that inched up only slightly since 2000, according to federal data. But officials say there has been a boom in the past few years not reflected yet in federal data.

Some skeptics of the nonacademic services, such as state officials, question whether it will drive up tuition costs and reduce the appeal of the schools, which attract many students who can't afford four-year colleges. But community-college officials say retaining students with perks and programs will result in more total dollars from an increase in students paying tuition.

"If you really can help students stay in school, there's also an economic payoff," said Kathy Mannes, a senior vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges, which account for more than 40% of undergraduate students, are facing increasing pressure from the Obama administration and employers to boost their graduation rates. The rate hovers at about 31% for students earning degrees at two-year schools within three years of enrollment, compared with about 59% for bachelor's degrees at four-year schools within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

One challenge is that more than 40% of dependent students at public community colleges come from families making less than $40,000, compared with about 29% of students at public, four-year schools, according to the Education Department.

"There are lots of ways students fall through the cracks," said Ms. Mannes. "We're not meant to be social-service agencies, but we're meant to find whatever ways we can to help our students get to the finish line."

Her organization has joined with the Center for Law and Social Policy in a pilot program called Benefits Access for College Completion, a three-year program to guide students to services, such as subsidies for food and housing, that they might otherwise miss. Five foundations chipped in nearly $5 million for the project.

Jamie Gorman-Wenner, a 33-year-old mother of three, was living in a relative's attic and enrolled in a paralegal program at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., when she found a pamphlet from the foundation-funded initiative. After meeting with a counselor, she moved into a housing facility catering to families.

"Now, I can do homework on my computer in the living room and don't keep up my children all night long," said Ms. Gorman-Wenner, who was laid off from her job in advanced technical support.

Some colleges have centralized new perks in "wellness centers" that offer services such as mental-health counseling, physical-fitness programs and financial advice. At City Colleges of Chicago, one of the largest community-college systems in the U.S., administrators opened wellness centers at all seven schools last year. The program served about 10,000 students last year and cost about $700,000. The Chicago system's graduation rate climbed to 12% in the 2012-13 school year, up from 7% in 2008-09.

"Students at a four-year campus will have a roof over their heads, a dormitory and a meal plan," said Michael Russell, who directs wellness centers for the system. "We have students who do not necessarily have that."

Officials at Indiana's statewide Ivy Tech Community College recently finished a $4.5 million addition to its South Bend campus, which now offers on-campus dining, a larger bookstore and a student center. A $17 million, state-funded facility in Gary, Ind., is in the works to provide students there with a fitness and wellness center, as well as academic offices.

Thomas Coley, Ivy Tech chancellor for the state's north central and northwest region, said his school is in "catch-up mode" to offer services like other community colleges.

Critics of Mr. Coley's master plan, which included a new performing-arts center, question if these expenditures are the best use of funds in an era of cash-strapped budgets. But Mr. Coley maintains that these purchases will pay off in the long run.

"There is much greater emphasis on student engagement and student retention," he said, who also added funds for a student-life director and more events on campus. "It's all part of our development of student life."

At one of the Des Moines campuses, Lindsey Humble, 19, a general-studies student in a new housing unit on the Ankeny campus, said she could dash to her room to study between classes, ask other residents for math help and unwind at cookouts with classmates. "It would have been a lot harder if I couldn't live on campus," said Ms. Humble, who plans to go on to a four-year school after completing her associate's degree.

"Here, I have more of a family. It's really handy," she said.

 

A version of this article appeared September 19, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Community Colleges Try to Revamp Image to Keep Students.

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