10/29/2010 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unready and Unsuccessful

Seventy percent of California's degree-seeking community college students failed to earn a credential or degree -- or to transfer to four-year universities -- within six years, concludes a new study. Most students drop out quickly, reports the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy and the Campaign for College Opportunity. Between 2003 and 2009, only 40 percent of students earned at least 30 college credits, which is considered "the minimum needed to provide an economic boost in jobs that require some college experience," reports the LA Times.

Blacks and Latinos did worse: Only 26% of black students and 22% of Latino students had completed a degree or certificate or transferred after six years, compared to 37% of whites and 35% of Asian Pacific Islanders.

Students fail because they're not prepared for college-level reading, writing and math. Many are juggling jobs and family responsibilities too, of course, but college readiness is the make-or-break issue.

"It's not an understatement to say that the future of California is at stake," said study co-author Nancy Shulock, executive director of the higher education institute. "Unlike other developing countries with which California and other states have to compete, each generation is getting less educated and attaining fewer higher degrees. The gaps are large and critical and when you look at the future face of California, they are the ones for whom we're not delivering much success."

"Colleges that help underprepared students complete English and math" should attract more funding, said Shulock. "Currently, it's by how many students are enrolled in the third week of school."

A new state task force will look for ways to improve success rates.

It will recommend warning high school graduates to prepare for placement tests that determine whether they can take college-level classes. Some students could avoid remediation with a little studying, another study says.

It may suggest intensive remediation to move students quickly to the college level. The Gates Foundation is funding experiments with this approach in the hopes that students won't give up if they see a shorter path to college-credit classes.

I suspect it will help some students, but won't work for many. Someone who's completed 13 years of schooling with fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade skills isn't likely to be a fast learner.

Integrating basic skills with job skills in the same classes is a promising idea for students who aren't motivated by the academics-first approach. Students are much more likely to earn a vocational certificate, which can help their job prospects significantly, than to earn a two-year degree.

But there's a limit to what community colleges can do if the K-12 system continues to graduate students with college aspirations and middle-school skills.

It's not just a California problem.

The three-year success rate -- a tougher mark to hit -- is only 18.2 percent for Arizona's full-time community college students, writes Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute. Students start in remedial classes and never make it to the college level.

At the Community College of Rhode Island, 63 percent of new students need to take remedial classes.

"The skills that students need to be successful at the community college level are the same skills they need to be successful in the work world," Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist told the Providence Journal.

Rhode Island raised academic standards and support for students in 2003 without any apparent effect on remediation rates. The state now requires students to complete a portfolio or senior project to earn a high school diploma. Students must earn more credits. No effect.

Even tougher high school graduation requirements will go into effect for this year's juniors, the Class of 2012.

Ninety percent of community college students say they have "the commitment it takes to succeed" and 84 percent think they're academically prepared, said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at a nationwide Summit on Completion. Yet, after three weeks of class, 40 percent of new community college students have skipped class, and 30 percent have turned in an assignment late or not at all.

Open admissions are a key part of the mission of community colleges. Anyone can give college a try. But success is elusive for students with weak academic skills and poor work habits. Community colleges are struggling to solve problems created in the K-12 schools.