President Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., in January about new initiatives to help more Americans go to college. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

President Obama has made community colleges central to his campaign for social mobility. “For millions of Americans,” he declared in his January speech proposing free community college tuition, “community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class.”

But America’s community colleges have a completion problem. Six years after enrolling, less than four in 10 community college students have earned a degree; at urban colleges, the rate is lower.

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 student 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.

After analyzing the Chicago labor market, Kennedy-King reduced the number of programs it offered. For each program, the college created highly structured pathways with maps that clearly lay out the courses students need to take each term. These were prominently displayed in the course catalogue and on the school’s Web site.

The number of advisers was quadrupled, and with their guidance, students were required to choose a focus area and develop a semester-by-semester plan for completion. Advisers were held accountable for meeting with their students regularly, monitoring their progress and intervening quickly if one went off track.

These reforms have borne fruit. The three-year degree graduation rate at Kennedy-King more than tripled in four years, and today Kennedy-King’s combined rate of graduation or transfer to a four-year college is 44 percent, above the national average for all community colleges.

Guttman Community College, launched about three years ago by the City University of New York, has also radically rethought the traditional community college. Its students attend full time and progress together as a cohort. All students take a career exploration course their first semester and, in their second semester, choose a program of study from a limited set of options. As at Kennedy-King, the options are based on an analysis of local employer needs. Required courses are clearly laid out, and students meet regularly with assigned advisers and mentors.

Guttman, like Kennedy-King, has experienced significant success: At the 2½-year mark, 41 percent of its first class of students had completed a degree.

Before Guttman and Kennedy-King, Valencia College in Florida undertook in 2000 what we term “guided-pathways” reforms, with program maps and intensive intake services to help students choose and plan their programs of study. By 2011, more than half of Valencia’s students were completing a degree or transferring within three years.

Implementing such reforms is not easy: It requires commitment among faculty and sometimes difficult decisions by leaders. For example, when Hyman decided to cut or consolidate programs that were not adequately preparing students, she encountered fierce resistance from faculty members and the city council. There were protests over both lost faculty positions and the threat to the ideal of broad student choice. After Hyman convened meetings with Kennedy-King staff, local employers and professors from nearby four-year colleges, however, her faculty became convinced that change was necessary and took ownership of redesigning their programs and curriculum.

Partly because of the kinds of obstacles Hyman faced in Chicago, too many colleges continue to pursue changes that merely tinker around the edges of the cafeteria model, all but ensuring disappointing results.

Obama’s free-tuition proposal was a clarion call. Today’s economy demands some form of post-secondary education. I hope that the pioneers of guided pathways will inspire more colleges to think broadly and coherently about their missions and that a new phase of community college reform will bring about long-sought and transformative improvements for ­students.