Community colleges, also known as technical colleges and junior colleges, offer a higher education starting point for many students. The College Board notes that more than 1,200 such schools exist, enrolling at least 6 million students.
While community colleges are prized for offering open admissions and a lower cost, many students arrive on campus lacking the basic skills to succeed. This month, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) issued a report, “What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready: The English and Mathematics Required by First Year Community College Students.” The main conclusion of the two-year study is that students are simply not prepared for community college and may have also spent more time on courses not needed for their college programs.
Most community colleges offer little in the way of mathematics courses for first-year students according to the study. Those courses that are offered are equivalent to middle school math. That may be due to community colleges finding that many students were rushed through secondary-level math courses to take Algebra courses without having the foundational principles of middle school math in place.
The study also found that today’s high school graduates are woefully unprepared to read and to write. Said Catherine Snow, co-chair of the study’s English Panel and Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Their writing skills are so low that instructors rarely ask their students to write very much outside of their English composition classes, and, when they do, the writing they are asked to do is not very demanding.”
Community College Reach
Community colleges now serve approximately 45 percent of America’s undergraduate populace. About half the students attend such schools to acquire the skills to become a police officer, a nurse or to work as an automotive mechanic, the final educational destination for them. The remaining students attend community college with an eye toward graduating and transferring to a four-year school. The report noted that both workplace-bound students and college transferees are not being prepared to move forward in life if they cannot master their first-year studies.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has thrown its support behind the report and has urged educators to read the findings and consider making changes at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Noted Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC, “This study emphasizes the critical importance of better aligning the entire P-20 pipeline to ensure all students are adequately prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.”
The report made several recommendations to educators including some that may be considered controversial. For one, the now standard Algebra II requirement in some states should be dropped. Instead, it should be included as one of “several mathematics paths to a high school diploma.”
Other recommendations include placing greater emphasis on completing middle school mathematics before heading off to Algebra I, improving college placement tests to reflect the mathematics students need, increasing writing assignments across all high school courses and having students read more complex texts.
A Bleak Future?
Perhaps offering the most pointed remark about the study’s findings was NCEE president Marc Tucker. He noted that community colleges possess “shockingly low expectations” of entering students. He implied that poor mathematics skills and the inability to write simple reports combine to place the United States in an uncompetitive position with other nations. Without making changes fast Tucker believes that, “…citizens will face a bleak economic future.”