When No Choice is the Best Choice

Politicians and pundits might argue about policy details for all sorts of matters, but in terms of education it seems everyone thinking about college now understands the importance of community colleges and vocational programs.

A few years ago President Barack Obama explained that his goals for education had a lot to do with community colleges: “This can be a community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high-school diploma.” Earlier in the year, Republican Newt Gingrich indicated that he basically agreed with the president.

The trouble with such schools, however, is that while they might offer an opportunity for anyone to access higher education, they’re not really all that good at making that happen. Less than half of people who attend community colleges graduate or transfer within six years. Part of the reason for this failure might have to do with the way community colleges and vocational schools structure their programs. But one state, Tennessee, appears to have community-based vocational programs that really work.

According to an article by Jennifer Gonzalez in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Nashville campus is part of the Tennessee Technology Center system, which has become something of a darling among college-completion advocates. Comprising 27 locations across the state, the system boasts graduation and job-placement rates that many colleges only dream of: 75 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Such achievements are even more noteworthy given the population the system serves: racially and ethnically diverse, low-income adults—students who tend to struggle in college.

How’d they do it? Apparently Tennessee has discovered that one of the best ways to help adults complete college quickly and start to earn money is not to give them much choice with their course selection.

It basically works kind of like high school. Instead of students picking a course here and there to fit into their schedules, as most community colleges work, these technology centers are places where students go full time.

They stay in class for six hours a day. Teachers take attendance. The schedule is predetermined.

At most colleges students determine their own schedules. This perhaps makes some theoretical sense, as students are adults. The problem is that attempting to put together a degree program one credit at a time, while it allows for “flexibility,” also facilitates dropping out. If students attend a program casually, they leave casually, too.

It’s not just the scheduling in Tennessee that enables students to succeed. The article explains that remediation is also embedded in the courses (so no separate courses designed to get people “caught up” in algebra) the program is competency-based, meaning that students move on to the next course when they’ve demonstrated that they have learned what they were there to learn. Career services are also centrally embedded in the program.

This pieces echoes the sentiments expressed by Jamie P. Merisotis and Stan Jones in their May/June 2010 piece for the Monthly. People don’t need more choice to succeed in vocational programs; they need more structure, and they need to be able to complete programs quickly.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer