To Get More Students Through College, Give Them Fewer Choices

Anya Kamanetz

College is no different from jam, according to a surprising new book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. The authors, three Columbia University education researchers, argue that the best way to help the largest number of students get through college is to give them fewer pathways than they have now.

To many, that may sound counterintuitive. Here’s the problem. The typical broad-access institution offers short-term certificates, noncredit classes, remedial courses, technical and vocational two-year degree programs and general education requirements for students hoping to transfer to a four-year university — everything from “the exposition of esoteric Buddhism to the management of chain grocery stores,” as a Carnegie Foundation president put it back in 1929.

This is what Davis Jenkins, one of the book’s authors, calls the “cafeteria model.” But putting together a balanced meal from an all-you-can-eat buffet isn’t easy, especially for students who are more likely to be working adults with caregiving responsibilities and the first in their families to attend college.