How to Succeed at Community College

President Obama has hailed community colleges as providing a "gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life." But somewhere along the way, community college students have lost sight of the dream. Fewer than three out of 10 full-time community college students make it to graduation. Part-time students fare even worse, with only 25 percent achieving a degree. While low graduation rates partially reflect students who transfer to another school to complete a degree, other students get sidetracked taking remedial courses or attending part time.

If succeeding at community college seems more and more like a long shot, you can take control of your experience. Find out how to avoid the main traps that keep community college students from graduating.

Identifying opportunities at community colleges

Community colleges provide a crucial link to career opportunity for many students. Unlike many four-year universities, the tuition remains affordable. Course scheduling is flexible, with online, partially online and accelerated programs that let students learn on demand and at their own pace. Broad support services help students connect the dots between high school and a skilled job or a bachelor's degree.

Accessibility does not come without challenges, however. Community colleges serve about half of all undergraduates, reports the American Association of Community Colleges. Few fit the traditional mold of the full-time, 18-year-old campus resident who relies on Mom and Dad to foot the bill. About two-thirds attend part time and commute to campus. Many are adult returning students; the average age in a community college classroom is 29.

"Community colleges attract students because of the flexible nature of the curriculum. For part-time students, schoolwork is a competing priority among many," said Dr. Elizabeth Bugaighis, dean of education and academic success at Northampton Community College.

With many students balancing work alongside family and work obligations, it's no wonder so many lose their focus along the way.

Key obstacles to college completion

Community college administrators, counselors and state public policy analysts identify these major obstacles to degree completion:

  • Remedial education. Many community college students arrive in the college classroom only to find themselves sidetracked down an extended road of remedial classes that don't count toward the degree. In states like California, as many as 70 to 90 percent of first-time students require remediation. Remedial classes in math, writing and reading cost students time, money and self-confidence. As a result, fewer than 25 percent of community college students who are placed into remedial education ever receive a degree or certificate (Complete College America, September 2011).
  • Part-time attendance. Students who attend college part time risk tipping the balance between school and other life priorities. Northampton Community College Professor of Counseling Dr. Virginia Gonzalez works with students individually to determine whether a part-time schedule is right for them. To succeed with a part-time schedule, students need a great deal of determination and discipline, she said.

However, community colleges nationwide are taking steps to remove the obstacles students face on the road to a degree.

How to beat the odds at community college

Here are four common traps community college students fall into, as well as escape routes you can use to stay on the path to success at community college.

Problem #1: Remedial classes slow down my progress toward a degree or certificate.

Solution: Community colleges are transforming remedial education to help shorten the time it takes for students to get up to speed. Northampton Community College, for example, is testing a pilot program for remedial classes in which professors teach a remedial and regular college course side-by-side, challenging and inspiring students rather than delaying their progress. Northampton also offers Smart Path Math, a series of online refresher course modules, at no cost, to help students test out of remedial coursework.

Problem #2: Academic requirements don't seem relevant to my life or career ambitions.

Solution: Colleges are taking steps to align course curricula more closely with employer demand and real-world practice. In fall 2011, 19 community colleges nationwide piloted Statway, a Carnegie Foundation program focusing on math education you can use, with applied instruction in statistics, data analysis and quantitative reasoning.

Problem #3: Studying is #3 on my list of priorities, after kids and my day job.

Solution: Seek out people who can help you prioritize. Helping you achieve a work-life-school balance is the job of the community college academic advisor.

"Part of making it through college requires a careful balance of life and school," says counselor Celinda Smith of Bellevue College.

Dr. Gonzalez of Northampton stresses the importance of having an upfront conversation with a counselor about how to balance your priorities before embarking on a degree program.

Problem #4: I don't know what it takes to succeed in my classes.

Solution: Community colleges are going the extra mile to help students develop effective learning strategies. SUNY Ulster offers time management and study skills workshops. At Northampton Community College, Dr. Gonzalez developed a 3-credit college success course targeting three skill areas: study skills, informational literacy and critical thinking. The course has raised retention rates, and students report increased confidence and success in other classes. Other schools may offer a trial period where you can test your comfort with online degrees or get a flavor for a class.

With these tips in mind, dedication and resourcefulness can take you from enrollment to graduation.

"Successful students achieve a balance and take advantage of the resources and services available to them," says Wendy McCorry, Assistant Dean for Student Success at SUNY Ulster.