CEO of Cengage: Edtech can help Obama’s community college proposal

Last month, President Obama revealed the America’s College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for some responsible students. The plan predicts that if all states implement the proposal it could save full-time students $3,800 in tuition and benefit around 9 million students each year. Under the proposal, the federal government would cover three-quarters of the cost and the states would cover the remainder.

However, some economists say the expense of such a program would be too high. The International Business Times says the plan could cost about $1.4 billion in 2016 alone. Others say, without even considering the price tag, giving students free tuition does not mean more graduates. Just ask California.

Even though the critics are loud and numerous, perhaps we shouldn’t give up just yet on trying to help community colleges. Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Learning, says with the amount of students who go to community college, focusing on this part of the higher education institution is important. “Nearly half of all college students enroll in community college – it’s pretty clear that community colleges are the centerpiece of the US higher education system.”

And the president doesn’t think that throwing money at students will be the answer either. The Department of Education recognizes that the current community college graduation number must grow in order for this plan to be successful in the long run. The plan states everyone must do their part. “Community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.”

Hansen agrees that just providing enrollment is not going to be the full answer. “The critical thing we need to focus on is understanding when and why students are dropping out of community colleges. Bringing more unprepared students into a system that isn’t equipped to mitigate those shortcomings will accomplish nothing,” says Hansen. “If we can understand students’ motivations, as well as identify why two out of five students drop out, we can improve the way their education is delivered and implemented.”

One way to improve the education? Supplying students with the technology needed in order to help them succeed. Hansen says according to their research, 77 percent of students felt they got more out of learning when they used digital learning tools. “Often this is because technology-enabled learning tools foster collaboration between students, instructors and classmates – allowing for improved student workflow, greater customization, and more visibility into individual progress.”

The need to improve the system is shown through the numbers. Many students struggle to graduate from 2-year schools and their resources are minimal compared to four year colleges where there is an emphasis on tracking progress and guidance is provided. Hansen says dropout rates remain way too high, a staggering 42 percent. But, it may not have to be this way.

Hanson sees the dropout rate and believes the edtech sector is in a prime position to help and provide students with the best materials to help foster their learning experience. “With the wealth of technology and tools at our disposal today, these insights balanced with smart use of education technology can be used to drive deeper engagement with students, and most importantly, greater success.”

Even if the plan doesn’t go through, it’s a discussion the president wants to address with the public. So, this is a call to arms, edtech! Help keep these students in the community college system, understand their needs, and provide them with better tools to keep them going.

Photo credit: David Joyce

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.