Many more students are enrolling in higher education programs, particular community colleges, than have in the past. The skills taught and certificates and degrees obtained can increase their earnings and employability, particularly if they stay in school longer. New evaluations continue to provide insight into how to further these goals, but we can start by offering more support services and simplifying the financial aid process.
In a recent New York Times article, experts conclude that an academic post-secondary experience may not be for everyone and that for some youth, vocational training might be a better fit. While access to and preparation for college remain important goals for many youth, Bob Lerman suggests that more emphasis should be put on high school, post-secondary, and apprenticeship programs to give some options to youth who do not pursue college but still must be prepared to enter the workforce. Community colleges are one place that offers vocational training programs.
While enrollment in such programs has gone up in recent years, however, an article in The Future of Children’s issue on Transition to Adulthood points out that many students struggle to stay in school and attain degrees and certificates. Students often face competing pressures on their time, such as work and family obligations, and these institutions often lack adequate resources to support such students.
More research needs to be done on how to best assist students, but a couple areas that seem promising are better, more personal counseling and more effective provision of financial aid. Early results from a randomized control trial of struggling students at a community college in California showed that a mandatory program on skills such as time management and note-taking coupled with counseling and tutoring requirements boosted academic performance and course credits earned. Some less rigorous evaluations also suggest that individualized programs helping students adjust to the demands of community college increased their success.
Financial aid studies have looked at both sources providing money upon enrollment and those offering stipends as rewards for achievement once in school. Recent legislation has increased the maximum size of Pell grants, federal payments toward education based on family need. However, application for these grants and other student aid requires the FAFSA, a complicated financial form. . A recent study offered randomly selected families help completing the form, and students in these families were more likely to enroll in college and received larger financial aid packages. This suggests that simplification of, and assistance with this process could benefit families for whom finances are a major obstacle for secondary education.
Other programs have looked into how to keep students in school and improve their performance while there. Scientifically rigorous trials at a community college in Louisiana and a four-year public university in Canada showed significant improvements in grades and persistence when students were offered financial benefits conditional on maintaining reasonably high grades. These suggest a reward system could keep students on the path toward certificate or diploma completion.