Community College Reform: Mentors, Not Money

Community College Reform: Mentors, Not Money

This week, millions of American students will receive long-awaited college acceptance and rejection letters. Many will head to four-year colleges in the fall. Many others will go to two-year community colleges.

The increasing expense of four-year institutions has made community college comparatively attractive as a pathway to a four-year degree. Earning a two-year degree can lead to significantly enhanced employment opportunities. However, graduation rates at two-year colleges are half of what they are at four-year institutions, at roughly 25 percent of beginning enrollees. We need to help more students complete community college, gain a credential, and move into employment.

The problem is not the cost of tuition. President Obama's $60 billion plan to make community college free for most students (those with family incomes up to $200,000) focuses on cost. Because of Pell grants, financial aid, and the low cost of community college, most low-income students are able to afford the tuition at a two-year school. The president's proposal is also unlikely to pass given the makeup of Congress.

Yet community colleges have received bipartisan support historically. A modest, targeted proposal could pass. The recent reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act gives hope. The best approach to reform isn't to further subsidize tuition, but rather to make sure community-college students have the personal support they need.

The greatest challenges to community-college students are often personal. Community-college students are more likely than four-year students to work during school, struggle with transportation, be single parents, and have child-care needs. More than a third are the first in their family to engage in post-secondary studies and lack role models or advice on how to study, set goals, balance work and life, and navigate a college system. Many lack a clear plan for what to study and an understanding of the opportunities a degree will lead to on the other side.

A more modest investment, around $75 million, could create a strong program of mentors to help students stay focused, make plans and develop goals, figure out child care and transportation systems, and link their studies to employment opportunities. Some community colleges already have programs involving older students, work-study funds, and specific populations, but a large-scale pilot project -- one connecting mentors, state education agencies, and grants to local community colleges under Title 3 of the Higher Education Act-- is worth trying.

Senior Corps, which as part of the Corporation for National Service facilitates volunteerism for Americans over 55, could serve as a source of mentors, as the number of Americans at or nearing retirement is increasing as the Baby Boomers age. Many have wisdom about getting jobs in their community, possess the maturity needed to help younger students focus, know their local transportation systems, have the time and training to navigate the child-care system, and are looking to stay connected to real-world problems.

If the project proved successful, a series of public-private partnerships involving federal, state, and foundation funds could expand it to all students wishing to enter into a structured relationship with a mentor.

This program would not solve every problem in the system. One can't make a student take advantage of an opportunity. There would need to be recruitment and training of the mentors. Yet pairing each willing student with a quality mentor is an idea worth trying.

David Gray is a senior fellow at New America.

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