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Across the country, the typical college student of today isn't so typical anymore. Only one in four lives on campus and studies full-time, and most part-time students go as long as eight years before finishing their degree. Higher-ed schools are desperately looking for strategies to improve those numbers. NPR's Larry Abramson found one in Tennessee.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Many higher-ed institutions brag about all the choices they offer: lots of courses and majors to choose from, pick your own schedule. But James King says for some students, choice can be the enemy.

JAMES KING: We do not use the Burger King Approach - have it your way - because, most of the time, employers do not have that approach. You work according to a schedule that they set.

ABRAMSON: King is vice chancellor of the Tennessee Technology Centers, a state-supported career training program with 27 locations strung across this big state.

CAROL PURYEAR: We have about 450 students this fall. Good morning, Lynetta(ph).

ABRAMSON: This is the Murfreesboro Center, not far from Nashville. Carol Puryear is the director and den mother, you might say. She and the other staff do a lot of hand-holding to make sure that students get to their goal - a certificate and a job. Many community college programs let students pick and choose classes. At the Tennessee Technology Centers, once students pick their program, their class schedule is decided for them.

PURYEAR: They decide on the program and they decide if they want to be full time or part time and that's pretty much it.

ABRAMSON: Students don't have to worry that their schedule might change from semester to semester. For the 16 months she's enrolled, student Heidi Khanna knows exactly when she has to show up for her drafting courses.

HEIDI KHANNA: 7:45 to 2:30 Monday through Friday.

ABRAMSON: Attendance is taken and it makes up about a third of your grade. It's a lot more like high school than the typical on-again-off-again schedule of many college students.

KHANNA: I am studying for a test right now. I'm in my architectural book.

ABRAMSON: Khanna is working on a computer-aided design program. Yes, architecture is in a slump, but Khanna is also getting the skills she needs to move into mechanical drawing. The Technology Centers work closely with advisers from local businesses to keep their program in sync with economic reality. That's one reason why around eight in 10 students finish and get a job in their field - amazing statistics for any higher-ed institution. But it's still scary leaving the nest. Are you nervous at all about investing this much time, will you get something out of it?

KHANNA: I'm scared to death. I don't know, scared of change, you know, just getting back out into the workforce.

ABRAMSON: Heidi Khanna already has a degree, but her AA in liberal studies wasn't getting her the work she wanted, so she's starting over again at age 39. Other students plan to use their certificate to get a job to pay for more schooling. Twenty-three-year-old Jeremy Miller already has an offer to be a surgical technician. His earnings will rise to around $40,000 a year.

JEREMY MILLER: That'll do for me. That's better than what I'm making now.

ABRAMSON: Yeah, what are you making now?

MILLER: Nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Next August, I plan on starting where I left off the first time I went to school with my prerequisites, to start my bachelor's degree in biology and then hopefully off to med school after that.

ABRAMSON: Transferring to a new school is a big challenge for many students, but the Technology Centers have good arrangements with other colleges in Tennessee so students here can continue without losing credits. The centers have followed much the same program for over 40 years, and it's actually pretty old school motto: create a closely-knit program, like a small Ivy League school. Now, as more schools realize just how bad their college completion rates are, they're looking in this direction. Next September, the City University of New York will open a brand new school called The New Community College, with Scott Evenbeck as president.

SCOTT EVENBECK: We've designed a curriculum and co-curriculum that everyone will go through together. And the students will all be, at least in the first year, enrolled full time.

ABRAMSON: These schools are building on evidence that shows many students simply take the wrong classes or they can't get into the right ones; either way, they waste time and money. The longer they take, the more likely they are to drop out. And the New Community College will also start with a summer program that introduces students to the school and each other.

EVENBECK: Then when they come in the fall, they'll have an intact schedule where a cohort of students will take everything together.

ABRAMSON: There are signs this approach has promise for one- and two-year students. The question is whether these tightly-focused programs have something to teach bigger four-year schools, where graduation rates are also pretty low. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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