November 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 8

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This article is the first in a series on community colleges

Beyond One-Size-Fits-All: Sociologically Smart College Procedures to Improve Student Success

James E. Rosenbaum, Northwestern University, and Janet Rosenbaum,
State University of New York   

Over the last 50 years, college attendance has radically increased, with most of the gain in community colleges. Community colleges have reduced the formal barriers of time, distance, and cost with convenient locations, flexible schedules, low tuition, and, often open admissions policies.

Community colleges can provide good job opportunities. Even in the current weak economy, some industries report labor shortages for mid-skilled jobs, particularly in computer and health occupations (Holzer, et al. 2011; Acermoglu and Autor, 2010).

Unfortunately, community colleges have poor degree completion rates (37 percent of students graduate within eight years of enrolling), and most reforms have been ineffective at improving completion. Sociology has conceptual tools for understanding these difficulties. Besides the usual focus on academic achievement, sociology suggests studies of nonacademic qualifications, nonmonetary job rewards, cultural norms, and institutional practices.

We report here some initial inquiries into community college completion. We find that community college procedures inadvertently harm disadvantaged students. In contrast, we find colleges using alternative procedures with better degree completion. These procedures are “sociologically smart”—well adapted to the needs of disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, wearing cultural blinders, many reformers are unaware of these options, and they pursue one-size-fits-all traditional college procedures.

Traditional and Nontraditional College Procedures

The traditional college model poses an attainment chain: courses lead to credits, which lead to credentials, which in turn lead to job payoffs. However, in detailed studies of community colleges and their private counterparts, we find that their students face gaps at each step.

In contrast, some private occupational colleges use alternative procedures that reduce these problems. Occupational colleges are private career schools that confer accredited degrees. They enroll similar students as community colleges, but they have 20 percent higher degree completion rates (Stephan, et al., 2009). To discover effective procedures in a local sample, we purposely chose better occupational colleges; so they are not typical. Our findings are based on close observations and interviews with college staff and 4,000 surveys with students at community colleges and occpational colleges.

The private sector has problems, and even some frauds. Our aim in this article is to describe what we learned from these colleges, not advocate them. Below we discuss seven “sociologically smart” procedures, well-adapted to disadvantaged students’ needs, which community colleges might also use to improve completion rates.

Provide Quick Wins

Although most community college students seek “four-year BAs” without intermediate credentials, realistically, 4 percent get BAs in four years, 8 percent take five years, and another 16 percent take six to eight years (Stephan, 2012). Four-year BAs are almost a myth, and BAs are still rare in eight years. Students are not warned about eight-year BAs or interim strategies for getting quick credentials. In contrast, the private occupational colleges in our sample offer credential ladders—certificates and associate degrees along the way to the BA, so students get quick dependable payoffs.

Make Early Courses Count

Wearing BA blinders, most reformers stress remedial courses so all students can pursue traditional BA degrees. Most community college students are placed in remedial courses, but only 33 percent complete the sequence in math, 17 percent for low-achieving students, and rates are only slightly better in reading (Bailey et al., 2010). No one warns students that remedial is noncredit and usually not effective.

Indeed, “college-level academic skills” may be unnecessary. Students only need 9th-grade academic skills to get certificates or applied associate’s degrees in many occupational programs. Faculty report that these programs let 26-year-olds quickly become computer networking technicians, medical technicians, medical aides, and accounting staff, even if they go on for higher degrees that require remedial courses (Rosenbaum et al. 2010).

In the occupational colleges we studied, every course counts, and students earn certificates without remedial courses. Remediation is gradually provided later, often as lessons within occupational courses. All early courses give credit toward a credential and have program-relevant content.

Provide Degree Ladders

Many community college students face a “fail-first” process—42 percent drop out the first year, 50 percent return, and 53 percent drop out again (Horn, 1999). These failures erode confidence. Community college counselors rarely warn about this or mention degree-ladder alternatives. Students are told about sub-BA credential options only if they are over age 24 or returning dropouts, “after they failed a couple times.” The many early failures, who do not return, never learn about these options.

In contrast, occupational colleges put all students on degree ladders that give quick certificates, which improve jobs and confidence, on the way to associate and bachelor’s degrees. Within one year, students can complete certificates and get good jobs in high-demand fields, even if life crises interrupt their college careers later.

Provide Structured Pathways

Although community colleges encourage students to “explore” many electives, they don’t warn students that credits may not meet credential requirements, and credential timetables may be prolonged. Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study show that, while 8 percent of college entrants got associate degrees by eight years after high school, another 10 percent had enough credits but no degree (60+ credits, Adelman, 2003). Since degrees have payoffs, but credits often don’t (Grubb, 2002), this may hurt students’ outcomes.

In contrast, private occupational colleges offer structured courses in dependable pre-set time slots. Like package-deal vacations, students choose their career goals, and the college manages all details so students make rapid progress to credentials with job payoffs.

Provide Guardrails

Community college students make their own choices, and they make many mistakes—courses that are too easy, too difficult, or don’t count. Competing demands and personal crises create time and financial binds, absences, and dropouts. Although community colleges offer advisors, students must initiate the meeting and sometimes wait weeks.

In contrast, occupational colleges require mandatory advising meetings every term. They also monitor absences, grades, and teacher concerns, and advisors quickly contact students who exhibit warning signs before problems become serious. Social services also help students handle common life challenges—transportation, housing, work, and childcare. Private colleges see these efforts at retaining students as worthwhile investments in preventing dropouts.

Provide Job Placement and Institutional Links

Community colleges offer small optional workshops for career help. They may also post job openings, mostly unrelated to their college programs.

In contrast, many occupational colleges provide mandatory and comprehensive job placement assistance for all students. Students learn to translate courses into skills that employers recognize, and identify good jobs and areas where their skills are in demand. Some advice was surprising to us—they warn students to be skeptical of highly-paid jobs; which often have bad work conditions. Instead, students should seek skill-relevant jobs.

Provide Multi-dimensional Job Rewards

Despite claims about the BA’s “million-dollar payoff,” 27% of certificates graduates have higher earnings than the median BA graduate (Carnevale, 2010). Moreover, earnings at age 30 may not indicate an enduring outcome. In the NLSY79, 25% of those with top quintile earnings at age 26-30 fall to the middle quintile or lower by age 46-50 while 31 percent of the bottom quintile rise to middle quintile or above (Janet Rosenbaum, 2012b).

The nonmonetary payoffs are also substantial. Analyzing national data, Janet Rosenbaum (2011a,b, 2012a) found that certificates and associate degrees lead to significantly better jobs than high school diplomas on ratings of job status, job satisfaction, and autonomy (a defining attribute of middle-class jobs according to Goldthorpe). Moreover, associate degrees (but not certificates) lead to better material rewards (e.g., earnings, benefits, unstrenuous and stable work hours).

Although youth typically have difficulty gaining access to careers (primary labor market jobs), certificates and associate degrees lead to significant gains in career access and career preparation. Job rewards account for some health disparities and mediate some of the relationship between education and health outcomes (Ibid, 2012). In addition, after getting these credentials, students are more likely to plan higher degrees than comparable high school graduates, and over 20 percent of those with certificates get AAs or BAs. These findings suggest that associate degrees and certificates can substantially improve students’ careers and quality of life in two years, and they may go on to BAs later.


Sociologists are aware of arbitrary cultural and institutional features of higher education. However, having attended traditional four-year colleges, we may wear BA blinders as well.

Sociologists have identified unseen gaps that block opportunity for young people, and the findings illustrated above indicate some examples. BA blinders encourage one-size-fits-all cultural beliefs that are unrealistic and create barriers, including mythical four-year BA degrees and academic “college readiness” that is unnecessary for some credentials, ineffective remediation, courses without credits, credits without credentials, credentials without job payoffs, job rewards that are more satisfying than earnings, and sub-BA credentials that provide quick access to these job rewards. Occupational colleges illustrate alternatives to traditional procedures and their failures. Community colleges are attempting ambitious goals; these alternative procedures might help accomplish them.

While sociologists have studied these issues, they should further examine how college procedures limit students’ options and success. In seeking to solve the puzzle of how youth gain access to careers, these findings indicate many alternatives to the one-size-fits-all college model.


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