A typical community college is lucky to have half of incoming students still attending after one year, said Clatsop Community College President Christopher Breitmeyer. About 65 percent of students at the local college earn a degree or credential in six years, comparable to the rate at a four-year university.
“That still leaves, what, 30 percent of the folks are not making it,” Breitmeyer said. “That’s just not acceptable to me.”
During a Nov. 16 Columbia Forum speaker series, Breitmeyer argued that colleges need to focus more on building grit and providing the goals needed for students to persevere and finish.
Breitmeyer came to Clatsop from St. Charles Community College northwest of St. Louis, Missouri, where he was vice president of academic and student affairs, and before that the dean of math, science and health. His primary teaching background is in biology.
The community college in Astoria serves a wide variety of students, from teenagers to seniors, from Talented and Gifted program students to those still learning to read or comprehend English. In any given academic quarter, about 100 of its students are from Pacific County, where it is the top post-secondary education choice for Ilwaco and Naselle graduates.
Many of the students who attend Clatsop and other two-year colleges are not academically ready for college or have backgrounds that provide them grit.
“The group that we’re dealing with is so diverse, and not everyone is going to do well on a test,” he said.
The college assesses the academic skills of new students. Nationally, about 70 percent of recent high school graduates require at least one remedial course, he said, and only 7 percent of those students who keep attending and take remedial courses end up reaching college-level courses.
Breitmeyer said putting students in remedial courses is like telling them they’re not smart enough or going to finish. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Community colleges are starting to do away with developmental courses, instead placing students into college-level courses, providing extra support, allowing them to sink or swim and letting them know it’s OK to fail and try again, he said.
The same strategy was tried at St. Charles by placing development English students into college-level courses, with strong results, he said. He called for a similar growth-oriented mindset locally.
“They’ve also got to figure out what’s important to them,” Breitmeyer said.
Goals are another metric of success, he said, and colleges need to do a better job of steering students into certain pathways so they have goals.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t break out of that pathway, but once you’ve got a goal, you’re two to three times more likely to continue and to persist and to make it,” he said.
Breitmeyer said there is a movement in the state and U.S. toward such guided pathways.
“When you come into any community college five years from now, you’re going to pick one of maybe five majors, and that’s it,” he said. “That’s going to be a very proscribed course for you to take.”