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Washington Post: Rethinking the 'cafeteria' approach to community college

5/11/2015 12:00 AM

Most community colleges today employ a “cafeteria” or “self-service” model of education. The cafeteria college is designed around the goal of expanding access to higher education and is driven by a public funding system that ties dollars to enrollment. To get students in the door, community colleges maximize choice and flexibility. They offer a dizzying array of courses, programs, and scheduling and credential options, and they ask students to pick and choose from them.

But the dark side of choice and flexibility is complexity, disorientation and disconnectedness. A course catalogue containing hundreds of classes and dozens of program areas confronts students, who receive limited help in deciding what to study (adviser to stu​dent ratios exceed 1 to 1,000 at many colleges) and may have difficulty determining the classes they need to complete a degree or to transfer to a four-year college without losing credits. Many students drift aimlessly for years, accumulating credits but coming no nearer to earning a degree.

A growing number of community college leaders have come to realize that, to address these challenges, they must rethink how their institutions operate.  

Cheryl Hyman, herself a former community college student, is one of these leaders. When she took the helm of Chicago’s system, completion rates were below the already abysmal urban community college average of 13 percent. Kennedy-King College — located in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and serving almost exclusively students with remedial needs — had a graduation rate of 8 percent.  

Under Hyman’s leadership, Kennedy-King embarked on a complete redesign. As the college considered what changes were needed, it worked backward from the end goal of ensuring that students earn degrees with immediate value in the labor market or can transfer to four-year colleges with a junior-year status in their majors.  

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