I’ve spent most of my career in the community college setting and much of that time has been as president of Warren County Community College (WCCC), a smaller New Jersey institution less than two hours from New York City.
A benefit to leading at a smaller school like WCCC is the opportunity to try new things, even radical things—without some of the challenges that might come when initiating change at a large institution.
One of my main goals at WCCC—and a goal of all types of institutions—is increasing the graduation rate. Community colleges nationwide have set a goal to reach a 50-percent graduation rate. We’ve undertaken a few initiatives at WCCC that have helped us more than double graduation rates, and many of these initiatives can be replicated on other campuses.
4 steps to improving graduation rates
Step 1: Remove remediation
At WCCC, we took a bold first step in our quest to improve graduation rates. By abolishing remedial courses, we immediately saw our graduation rates double. Remedial courses often become a trap for community college students—few actually complete the courses and those that don’t are gated from the credit-bearing courses they need for their degree. Of course, this not a decision that is made lightly, and there are critics on both sides of the equation, but the immediate positive impact on graduation rates is undeniable.
Step 2: Credit adjustment
Second, we lowered our credit-to-degree ratio. At WCCC, an associate degree is now 60 credits and a certificate is now 30 credits. While we can’t take credit for the statewide change (no pun intended), soon after we lowered requirements in 2016, it became law in 2018 across New Jersey that associate degrees require no more than 60 credits. The legislation is designed to lower the cost of education and decrease time to graduation. We were ahead of the curve, and many of our students benefited as a result.
Step 3: Diversify teaching
Everyone is a teacher at WCCC: faculty and administrators. Even I teach. This is similar to how the first colleges in the United States were founded, and we wanted to get back to that successful model. Maintaining a presence in the classroom ensures I stay eye-to-eye with the most important component of the mission: the students. I can’t make the best decisions on behalf of the institution without the first-hand knowledge and interaction I have with our students.
Step 4: Eliminate cost barriers
In examining remaining factors hindering the graduation rate, we couldn’t ignore cost. We found that students were able to make their tuition payments, but then they couldn’t afford to eat, pay their rent, or cover costs for transportation to and from campus. We know for a fact that at WCCC we had students who weren’t academically successful because of the cost of course materials. That is unacceptable, but it is one area where we could affect change and wield our institutional purchasing power to benefit students.
We chose Cengage Unlimited to help dramatically lower the cost of course materials and to also give students access to a better learning experience. Cengage Unlimited is a digital subscription that gives students access to an entire digital catalog of more than 22,000 resources for one price.
To get the best deal for our students, we went all-in with Cengage for all content across our campus. As such, we were able to structure a fee model that guarantees all Warren County students will pay one price—$140 per year—for all of their course materials, no matter how many courses they take. With this change, we eliminated one cost barrier for our students and opened up an entire digital library for them. Of course, any large-scale change has its critics and its champions but, at the end of the day, this was the best decision for our campus to eliminate one significant cost barrier.
The cost of course materials is a challenge that affects graduation rates, but one that can be addressed with great coporate partners like Cengage. My advice to other institutions looking to address the cost of materials is to start small with one department and then try to scale it across campus. For example, since course materials in the STEM disciplines can be particularly expensive, try something new with your science department and use successes to grow support across campus.
Continuing the quest for 50
Like almost all community colleges, we continue to strive for that 50-percent graduation rate at WCCC. We currently stand at 45 percent for all, 55 percent for African American students, and 75 percent for our Latino students, and I’m encouraged by the improvements we’ve seen from recent initiatives. By focusing on students’ needs and initiating a few bold changes, other institutions can see similar improvements as we all work to get more students across the finish line to graduation.
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