First steps in college

Points of Contact initiative helps students make a smooth transition to college
Student tutor Oliver Perrett, left, helps pharmacy technician student Fred Smith in San Jacinto College’s student success center. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College

To prevent “summer melt,” San Jacinto College in Texas is helping students navigate application, registration and enrollment through Points of Contact (POC). Points of Contact presenters introduce new students to financial aid, tutoring services, student life programs and activities, First Year Experience services, career assessment, and guided registration into future courses.

High school graduates are less likely to “melt” over the summer if enrollment and registration is “de-mystified,” says Clare Iannelli, dean of student development at the San Jacinto College North Campus.

The college will track retention and success rates for students exposed to POC.

Shared educational planners at feeder high schools also help students prepare for enrollment, placement testing, course  registration and financial aid application.

How to help students plan, succeed

More students are passing classes and staying in school at Florida’s St. Petersburg College. Writing in Community College Daily, President Bill Law credits an initiative launched two years ago, College Experience: Student Success.

A third of students were failing gatekeeper courses. Minority students, especially African-American males, were doing even worse.

The college added professional and peer tutors, made Learning Support Centers more welcoming, involved more faculty in tutoring and learning support and increased access to 24/7 online tutoring resources.

The number of students visiting learning centers more than doubled in the first year, writes Law. Most who use the centers do so at least five times a semester, significantly raising their odds of earning a “C” or better.

An online tool, My Learning Plan, gives students “up-to-the-minute guidance on where they stand in meeting graduation requirements,” he writes. Students can plan which courses to take several terms in advance and see the impact of dropping a class or changing majors.

College-success course instructors helped students complete a plan and the tool was available online for all students. Students who completed the plan had a significantly higher success rate than those who did not.

The college also helped students explore careers, use career-aptitude tools and set goals.

About a third of the first-time college students entered without a clear goal. Those who worked with an advisor to choose a career path were more likely to return for a second semester.

Online orientation wasn’t enough for poorly prepared students, writes Law. The college now requires an intensive advising session and face-to-face orientation for new students with low test scores. Advisors contact their advisees in the first weeks of class to offer help as needed.

Students assigned to the face-to-face orientation remained enrolled in 92 percent of their classes, the same rate as better-prepared students.

If a student falls behind in class, the instructor uses an “early alert” system to inform a coach or mentor.  Faculty teaching almost 1,000 courses — most for new or underprepared students — have gone through training on using the alert system.

California: 2-year degree takes 4 years

A “two-year” degree typically takes more than four years, raising the The Real Cost of College in California,” reports Campaign for College Opportunity. Furthermore, associate degree graduates earn a median of 78 credits — well over the 60 required. All those extra credits lead to higher costs and fewer available seats at the state’s community colleges.

At California State University campuses, where many community college students hope to transfer, the median is 4.7 years for a four-year degree and 135 credits instead of 120.

Reducing the number of excess credits by just one in the community college system would save students $2 million in fees, save the state $21 million and create space for an additional 7,320 full-time students, notes Michele Siqueiros, the Campaign’s executive director.  A 10 percent reduction in credits would yield $16 million in student savings, and $168 million in savings to the state, which could create space for an additional 58,560 students.

Time is a key part of the “college affordability crisis,”  Siqueiros told the Los Angeles Times.

During the recession, California’s 112 community colleges lost $1 billion in funding. “Because of the lack of state funding, we had to reduce our workload and students were on long waiting lists, so that was a big factor,” said Francisco Rodriguez, the new chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Shut out of the classes they needed, some students signed up for whatever courses had empty seats to remain eligible for financial aid, the study found.

The report recommends:

Get students in and through pre-college level classes faster and improve the way students are placed into college level math and English

Require campuses to do a better job of matching class offerings with student needs

Increase college funding to restore classes so that students can get the courses they need and graduate more quickly

Encourage students to enroll full-time and take a full 15-credit course load every semester

Increase financial aid knowledge, simplify the financial aid process, and increase the amount of financial aid available to students so that more students can attend college full time and graduate on time

Provide information on time to degree to students, policymakers and researchers

Many community college students nationwide earn extra credits, writes researcher Matthew Zeidenberg in a 2012 working paper. Good advising could help students save time and money, while raising their odds of completing a degree.

Students may need to experiment to gain clarity about academic and career goals; they may be taking courses that deepen their knowledge or improve their skills more generally; and there may be labor market returns to more credits independent of a credential. On the other hand, students may . . . lack information about the correct courses to take to complete a program of study, or they may accumulate excess credits when their required classes aren’t available, thus forcing them to enroll in “extraneous” courses that allow them to maintain full-time status for financial aid.

Colleges could “direct undecided students to intensive one-on-one academic and career counseling” while using “light-touch” or e-advising for students with clear goals, Zeidenberg writes. “Such a system could electronically track every student and contact them via email if they register for courses that do not advance them in their declared program or will not transfer to their target institution, and offer alternative registration options that would satisfy these goals.”

Georgia’s Guided Pathways to Success is designed to help students earn the credits they need — without excess credits — to cut the time and cost of earning a degree.

Text nudges boost persistence

More than 18 percent of Pell recipients with a B average or higher didn’t reapply for aid for a second year of college, a recent study reports. Close to half did not return to college and those who did return had lower persistence rates than students who had reapplied for aid,

Text-message reminders to apply for aid can boost persistence for community college students, according to a new working paper, Freshman-Year Financial-Aid Nudges. The nudges cost only $5 per student.

Researchers designed a series of messages about financial aid, refiling the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (Fafsa) and maintaining satisfactory academic progress, a precondition of receiving aid, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A group that had helped the students in high school with college and aid counseling, uAspire, sent the messages.

The messages were designed to both connect students with advising and remind them about deadlines and requirements.

. . . The messages made a difference for community-college students. Sixty-four percent of such students in the control group persisted to their second year. For those who got the messages, the rate was 12 percentage points higher: 76 percent.

Messages didn’t affect the re-enrollment rate — 87 percent — of  students at four-year colleges and universities.

QuickStart helps adults ‘hit the ground running’

Starting college can be difficult for adult students, who often have rusty academic skills. Zane State College (ZSC) in Ohio has developed a pre-enrollment program that offers “cultural and social supports, computer literacy and academic skills-building,” reports Community College Daily.

QuickStart, which is free to students, is helping students avoid remedial courses. Of the 56 percent who complete the program, 60 percent are able to start in college-level reading and 40 percent in college-level composition.

Three other Ohio community colleges have adopted QuickStart.

QuickStart participants can earn three credits by mastering basic math and writing skills. They’re ready to “hit the ground running” when they officially enroll at ZSC, said Becky Ament, dean of developmental education.  “It lowers the stakes for adult learners, easing concerns about failure,” she said.

Originally designed in an online format, QuickStart was adapted when students said they preferred face-to-face interaction, said Ament. “When you’re trying to build someone’s confidence, that encouragement and praise and mentoring is so important.”

From community college to law school

California’s Community Colleges Pathway to Law School will help students at 24 community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree and transition to six of the state’s top law schools. The State Bar sponsored the initiative to encourage “diverse” students to pursue legal careers.

Students will receive advising, mentoring, financial aid counseling and preparation for the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. All credits in recommended courses will count toward a four-year degree when students transfer.

“This project will put talented and promising community college students on a trajectory to enter some of the finest law schools in the nation,” said Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, in a news release. It will make the legal profession “more diverse and the justice system more reflective of our state,” he said.

No silver bullet for remedial woes

Reforming remedial education will be “vastly more complex” than reformers and policymakers think, argues Hunter R. Boylan in Inside Higher Ed. Boylan, an Appalachian State professor of higher education, runs the National Center for Developmental Education.

Community colleges will need to “address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution,” writes Boylan.

Many policy makers are ignoring developmental education professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven ideas in an unsystematic way, he charges.

Historically, remedial reforms have been only moderately effective, Boylan writes. Traditional remedial classes — usually taught by poorly paid adjuncts — are cheap. Alternatives were seen as too expensive and labor-intensive. 

Today’s reformers advocate “embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses,” writes Boylan. Some want to eliminate remedial courses. But piecemeal innovations won’t work. The whole system has to change.

Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses.

Reform plans should include evaluation to see if new models work any better than the old one, concludes Boylan.

Oregon pilot aids first-generation students

To help low-income, first-generation students complete community college, an Oregon pilot will provide scholarships, advising and other support, reports the Oregonian.  “The program will be modeled on the private- and City of Portland-funded Future Connect program at Portland Community College.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber also signed a bill creating a commission to study offering free tuition at community colleges. He called for a day when “every student in our state believes in their heart that a post-secondary education is within their reach.”

Oregon wants 80 percent of young adults to earn a college degree or an industry-recognized certificate by 2025. Currently, about 48 percent of working-age Oregonians have a postsecondary credential.

The answers are online

Community colleges are using technology to provide information and advice to students, reports Community College Daily. Providing online sites and videos is much cheaper than hiring more counselors.

At Foothill College, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, students go online to answer most of their questions. That means time with an advisor can focus on critical issues, says Denise Swett, vice president for student services.

Sometimes, prospective students trip on basic things, such as how to apply to Foothill, that it’s open access and there is no charge to apply,  Swett said. Students can easily get answers to those questions — and more than 1,400 others relating to the school calendar, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid​) deadline, how to make an appointment with a counselor, and much more — on an online database called Ask Foothill, developed by IntelliResponse with input from the college.

Phone and email inquiries dropped by 54 percent after students started using Ask Foothill, Swett said. The system gets 12,800 hits a month, and the busiest time is 11 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. There’s also a Spanish version, as 21 percent of Foothill’s students are Latino.

Student Lingo, a series of videos, covers filling out the FAFSA, avoiding cheating and plagiarism, and financial literacy.

Students are urged to watch a video on setting up an education plan before they come in for a counseling appointment, and if they’re on academic probation, they’re required to watch videos on learning styles and time management.

Financial Aid TV offers short, interactive online videos in English and Spanish that answer basic questions and can be customized for a particular college.

Banners on campus display QR codes for Ask Foothill, Student Lingo and other services. Students can scan the code with a smart phone for instant access.

Two-year colleges focus on advising

Ohio community colleges are trying to strengthen counseling to lower the high dropout rate, reports NPR’s StateImpact Ohio

“College is an intimidating place for students, particularly for first generation students or returning students who make up a lot of our community college population,” says Suzanne Cox, a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College.

More than 60 percent of Tri-C students attend part-time.  Cox says students tend to be older than traditional college students, and many juggle school with a full time job and caring for their children or parents.

. . .  “Having that connection with someone who cares, who says I’m here for you, I’ll encourage you.  If you need me, here’s my card, just that simple act of encouraging someone is really, really important,” Cox says.

But as much as she tries, Cox says she doesn’t always have much time to build a relationship with every student she advises.  Students are required to attend orientation and see a counselor when they first enroll, but after that it’s up to them to seek out academic advising when they need it. Some may see an advisor only once during their entire college experience.

Only 20 percent of first time, full time, two-year college students complete an associate’s degree within three years. Community colleges are trying to raise graduation rates, says Melinda Mechur Karp, a researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “Advising is a really critical component.”

Counseling centers at community colleges “don’t have enough staff and they don’t have enough funds,” Karp says. The median caseload is 441 students per counselor, according to a 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association.

Some two-year colleges are “turning to online academic program planning tools that will send a red flag to an advisor when a student is veering off track,” reports State Impact Ohio. Many require new students to attend orientation or a “college success” class.