Community colleges in New Jersey, lagging behind their counterparts nationwide, have been attacking a well-known problem: getting students to graduate.
Both locally and nationally, some students register and never show up the first day; others leave after one semester. Nationally, about 40 percent of full-time students leave after the first year.
Of the students who started full time in 2010 at public community colleges nationwide, 19.5 percent had graduated three years later, according to the latest numbers from the federal Department of Education. That number had dropped from 23.6 percent a decade earlier.
New Jersey's rates are even lower: Only 16.3 percent of the students who started full time in 2010 had graduated three years later.
"Status quo is not working. Status quo doesn't make for a nice headline: Graduation rates in the 20s," said Michael Cioce, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Rowan College at Burlington County.
"What can we do that would be different?"
Over the last decade or so, that question has become increasingly important. Community colleges nationwide have taken hard looks at their academic, advising, and financial aid programs. In New Jersey, schools have introduced programs and made changes, some that represent major philosophical shifts.
Those changes include adopting an "intrusive advising" model under which professional advisers track students and work with them proactively; restructuring course planning to set up "guided pathways" through each semester; and revamping the remedial or developmental classes that a majority of students take.
"There's no silver bullet, and there's no instant fix. Here's a menu of the things that we did; we're not even sure which ones were the strongest. You do lots of little things, and you keep doing them," said Douglas Walcerz, vice president for planning, research, and assessment at Essex County College in Newark.
Essex County College has raised its three-year graduation rate from 5 percent to 10 percent. While that is still below average and far from where the school wants to be - "10 percent is nothing to brag about, except if you come from 5 percent," Walcerz said - it provides a sense of the many changes being tested across the state and country.
For students close to graduation, the school has instituted a hold to prevent schedule changes without seeing an adviser, a way to prevent students from dropping classes they need. New completion scholarships aim to cover small costs - a textbook, exam fees, bus passes - for students who otherwise could not finish school.
School administrators also knew of another significant barrier to graduation:
"What's the course that's standing in the way between students and graduation more than anything else? That damn math class," Walcerz said.
So Essex County College created a graduation math class, a twist on the required basic math course. This version is limited to students nearing graduation, cuts class sizes in half, and adds in-class tutors. The result is a pass-rate that has risen from around 45 percent to 70 percent, Walcerz said.
The college has also adopted a new version of its developmental math courses, an area where many other schools are also experimenting.
Traditionally, community college students were given a diagnostic placement test, and their score would determine what math and English courses they needed. A majority would be placed into developmental classes before being able to enter college-level courses.
But taking those courses cost money and took time. Frustrated students would leave and not return.
Camden County College's solution has multiple tiers: Students at the top are placed in weeklong boot camps that get them to college level without having to spend a semester without earning credit.
Other students, after taken their diagnostic test, are given self-study options to try to raise their scores.
Rowan College at Burlington County has created a system where students who place just under college level for math can take a hybrid course, taking the college-level math but with integrated tutoring services.
"Strictly having a look-up table where it says if you scored X then you're at this level isn't how we want to continue to operate," said Cioce, who in August was moved to head the Burlington County school's new division of enrollment management and student success.
"It's not just a single cognitive test score that is going to seal somebody's fate."
Another popular initiative has been to create "guided pathways" so students know which courses they need to take in order to graduate. That is a shift from years past, when students were provided little direction to help them through the options. Advisers were available but underused, and many students drifted through the course catalogues.
"Colleges need to map out those pathways more clearly for students, so that students can see what it's going to take," said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center.
Like its counterpart in Burlington County, Camden County College has been revamping its advising systems to create those pathways, making mandatory changes to the curriculum.
"The mantra is 'Students don't do optional.' You've got to tell them what to do and have them do it," said Margaret Hamilton, vice president for academic affairs at Camden County College.
The schools' advisers have begun to adopt an "intrusive" model, under which they track students' progress and take greater initiative in working with them. The data also exist to identify students who drop out right before graduating, or who are academically on track yet do not return from one year to the next.
Still, school administrators said, these changes can go only so far. Larger changes will need to occur before moving retention and graduation rates past a certain point, and some of that will require resources that don't currently exist.
Camden County College has 15 to 20 full-time professional advisers for its 12,000 or so students. That advising corps is supporting by about 120 faculty members who also advise students.
Rowan College at Burlington County has just four full-time professional advisers for its 9,000 students, with an additional dozen part-time advisers.