For many years, some of the lowest college completion rates in the country have been at community colleges, where more than half the students who start never finish their degree.
What can colleges do to improve the numbers?
There’s a renewed focus on trying to answer that question at Bellevue College, the state’s largest community college and the third-largest higher-education institution in the state.
It’s focusing on closing the gap for students who usually fare poorest — including low-income students and underrepresented minorities, said Ata Karim, vice president of student services for the college.
Of those Bellevue students who say they’re seeking an associates degree, 83 percent return to school after the first quarter, Karim said. But only 76 percent of students who enrolled in the fall return for the spring quarter. And fewer still — about 64 percent — are still in school after a year has passed.
For students who don’t yet have the math or reading skills necessary to enroll in a college course, a big hurdle is passing remedial courses. Some students can spend up to four extra quarters trying to catch up, and if they’re getting financial aid, the money will often run out before they finish their degree.
Karim said Bellevue is studying using the high school transcript, rather than a standardized placement test, to gauge a student’s readiness for college math. It’s also considering expanding the use of refresher classes before placement tests are given. And it is talking to the Bellevue School District about how public schools can do a better job of making sure all students are prepared for college-level rigor when they graduate.
“The idea is to scale these things up and make them available not to 100 students here and there, but to all students whose need profile requires those interventions,” he said.
Karim said David Rule, who became president of the college in January 2013, has given his office a deadline of late winter or early spring to come up with recommendations for how to improve retention.
“We want to be known as an institution that is sending incredibly well-prepared students to our four-year colleges, and incredibly well-prepared students to the workforce,” he said.