Researchers from Columbia University's Teachers College say the nation's community colleges should be fundamentally redesigned to make it easier for students to pick a career path.

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A new book about what ails community colleges, and how to fix problems in the system, draws in part on research done at Washington’s two-year colleges. And a few of the fixes are already being used here.

The book, “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” calls for a fundamental redesign of the nation’s two-year schools. The authors are researchers at Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Nationwide, only about 39 percent of community college students complete a degree or credential. One of the book’s central critiques of two-year colleges is that they offer a “cafeteria-style self-service” approach to education, which requires that students assemble the elements of their education on their own, with little help or direction.

The book’s authors believe the schools must do a better job of creating a structured path of courses that leads to a goal — a degree or certificate that results in a better job, author and CCRC senior researcher Davis Jenkins said in an interview. And the schools must do better at contextualizing instruction — that is, teaching the writing and math skills that are required of the degree the student is pursuing, Jenkins said.

Davis Jenkins
Davis Jenkins

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That’s an important feature of I-BEST — Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training — a program offered at all of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. I-BEST has been studied for years by CCRC.

Jenkins is sharply critical of the way math is taught in high schools in this country, a legacy, he says, of the Cold War. For example, there’s an emphasis on algebra, even though that particular skill is not needed in many professions.

The idea of creating guided pathways through college and contextualizing learning is an important element of I-BEST. And it’s an idea that’s taking off as well at many four-year colleges across the country, Jenkins said.

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