The college had conducted research that showed students who registered earlier were more likely to succeed: they get financial aid earlier, they’re more likely to get courses at a convenient time, and they have time to buy books and prepare for the first day of class. But while “express enrollment days” for first-time students were a success, continuing students were much less likely to show up.
That wasn’t for lack of communication. In fact, college officials discovered, students were overwhelmed with e-mails, letters, phone calls and postcards about enrollment.
A “communications audit” discovered 286 separate emails, letters and phone calls about enrollment.
Various departments sent notes and e-mails about immunizations, advising, placement tests, involvement on campus and financial aid applications. Often, each task a student needed to complete generated several pieces of communication from several different departments, duplication that college officials decided was unnecessary. Students could get up to 10 letters and e-mails from the college per week — which, (Kimberley) Collins said, made none of them seem particularly important.
The timing was off too: Applicants would get information about advising months before advising was available.
Monroe now sends emails with several “action items,” using red ink or bullets to create a to-do list, avoids outdated personal email accounts and sometimes sends postcards that may be noticed by other family members.
Open hours for placement exams were replaced by appointments to give students an action to take. The number of students taking the exams during their April break increased 50 percent, Collins said. Early registration is up 30 percent.
Community college students have many choices and little guidance in setting academic or career goals, concludes a Community College Research Center study. “Offering students multiple course and degree options, major choices, and course delivery methods—though intellectually appealing—may overwhelm students, create barriers to their success, and contribute to their ultimate failure,” write researchers Shanna Smith Jaggars and Jeffrey Fletcher.
Community college counseling is always understaffed and usually fragmented between academic career, financial aid and personal support counseling, the study found. Special advising programs for specific student subgroups, such as veterans or minority students, add to the fragmentation.
Students need structure, Jaggars and Fletcher suggest. Private, two-year career colleges provide more structure and have higher graduation rates, other research has shown.
Private colleges moved students into discrete programs of study early, offered structured programs of study and clearly defined sets of courses that students must take each term, and provided students with structured and mandatory advising.
Technology may help improve student outcomes, the researchers write, citing a few “promising” examples: LifeMap at Valencia Community College “uses web-based resources to help students identify and develop academic and career plans in conjunction with campus-based, in-person services” and Virginia’s Education Wizard links students to career and academic information.
“Intensive and intrusive coaching” — facilitated by email, social networking and data crunching — also can help students stay on the path to completion.
“She gave me a list of general things that I can pick from. It was such a big list that I didn’t really know where to start.”
“It’s like they get you in and out as fast as possible. They threw some papers at you, and then, like, ‘Have a good one.’”
“I have no idea what basic courses you have to take, your prerequisites. The [advisor] couldn’t tell me that because apparently they are all different for wherever you want to go.”
“When you have a large comprehensive community college, you have a large, diverse array of students, so you have a large array of programs,” Jaggars said. “That’s fine when students know what they want to do; it’s problematic when they don’t.”
Even students who’ve figured out their goal have trouble choosing courses that will transfer because different universities have different requirements.
At Oakland’s Merritt College, only 20 percent of students transfer to a four-year college or university. Seventeen of 18 graduating students in Professor Claudio Duran’s transfer club are moving on to universities, reports the Oakland Tribune. Fourteen Altazor members will go to a selective University of California campus.
The club’s mascot is an animated Spanglish-speaking Chihuahua that says, “Yo quiero transfer.”
California’s community colleges have cut funding for advising, tutoring and other student support services.
Two years ago, Duran, who teaches U.S. history, English and Latin American studies, started the club. The Chilean-born composer and documentary filmmaker attended community college in Oakland before transferring to Berkeley and earning an advanced degree at Stanford. ”The counselors do as much as they can,” Duran said, “but obviously it’s not enough.”
Altazor meets each Monday for pizza and college planning. Duran tells the students about transfer guarantee programs, reminds them of deadlines and encourages them to study hard limit, limit their paid work hours and apply to top universities. Students join honor societies and edit one another’s personal statements.
“I think doing it alone is the hardest thing,” said Eduardo Chaidez, who was also accepted to UC Berkeley. “You’re just completely lost.”
Statewide, only a quarter of community college students who say they want to transfer do so within four years. Until recently, each university campus set its own deadlines and requirements. Some California State University schools froze out spring transfers for several years.
Change is underway to make the move clearer, smoother and faster. The Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, which took effect in 2011, requires California’s community colleges to develop transfer degrees that correspond with the most popular state university majors. Students who complete them will be guaranteed admission as a junior on a Cal State campus — without any extra course requirements on either end.
Low transfer rates predate the recession, said Colleen Moore, a researcher at Sacramento State’s Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy. ”You’re essentially taking a group of students that is probably the least informed and the most likely to be the first in their families to go to college, and you’re putting them in institutions that have made this super complex for students to follow,” Moore said.
The community college Completion Agenda aims to double the number of students who complete a one-year certificate or an associate degree or who transfer to complete a credential, writes Terry O’Banion in Community College Times. College leaders have focused on orientation, advising, placement, financial aid — everything but teaching and learning.
Key leaders involved in the Completion Agenda recognize the need to focus more attention on teaching and learning and classroom instruction. Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation has noted: “Oddly enough, the concept of learning—a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education—is often overlooked in the modern era. For us, learning doesn’t just matter. It matters most of all. It’s the learning, stupid.”
. . . Kay McClenney and her colleagues at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) also weigh in on this conversation: “Student success matters. College completion matters. And teaching and learning—the heart of student success—matter.”
When students are “actively engaged,” they’re more likely to learn, persist and reach their goals, according to CCCSE research.
Improving classroom success in the first year is critical, especially for low-income students, says Vincent Tinto.
Student success depends on motivation as well as academic preparation. A new ETS test called SuccessNavigator claims to measure students’ readiness to show up for class, ask question and persevere, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Steven Robbins, director of research innovation at ETS, said the test can be used in tandem with conventional placement exams to find students with remedial needs who have the motivation and other non-academic tools for success in college – a suite of attributes some researchers have dubbed “grit.”
“It makes sense to try it because we know the traditional methods aren’t working,” said Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Students take the 30-minute test online at a cost of $5 (to the college). It assesses their commitment, self-management and social support, as well as academic readiness. In addition to generating a report to a counselor, the student gets a “customized action plan” with advice on seeking out tutoring or careering counseling or improving their health and wellness.
City Colleges of Chicago, which is field-testing SuccessNavigator, may use it to identify remedial students who could move quickly to college-level courses, said Rasmus Lynnerup, vice chancellor for strategy and institutional intelligence. The test “allows us to have a personal relationship with students” as soon as they arrive, he said.
Santa Monica College used the test in its student success course, said Brenda Benson, dean of counseling and retention.
Instructors received classroom-level reports after students took the test. While not providing results for individual students, Benson said instructors were able to see how the class stacked up on about 15 measures, like social supports or time management skills. They could then tailor their instruction based on each group of students’ overall needs.
Faculty “found it really useful,” Benson said, adding that “students seem to love it.”
Community colleges, chronically short on support staff, may use the exam to make advising more efficient. I wonder if high schools will be interested as a way to focus students on improving their non-academic readiness for college.
Among the One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education suggested to the National Association of Scholars are calls to require students to memorize poetry, memorize American texts, study logic, debate, statistics, etymology, U.S. history, grammar and writing and perform physical labor.
Robin Fox, a Rutgers social theory professor, suggests giving students alternatives to the four-year degree, such as certificates in skilled trades.
. . . what we need is a reduction in residential four-year institutions and an expansion of the community college system, with primacy given to extension and online courses for those already working in the profession or skill of their choice.
. . . Among college students, those doing science, engineering and math degrees should attend for free, while those who study arts, social studies, media studies, cultural studies (cultural anything), and particularly women’s and gender studies should have to pay double. Then let the market sort it out.
Education Sector’s Andrew Gillen calls for publishing earnings outcomes for all degree-granting programs, using IRS or Social Security data.
My suggestion is to make it clear to students whether they’re on the remedial, vocational or academic track while they’re young enough to do something about it — or set more achievable goals.
I’d like to see a program that would analyze a student’s grades, test scores, and self-reported motivation and study skills to predict future success. Let’s say Ned Ninth-grader learns he has a 1 percent chance of earning a medical degree (his stated ambition), a 10 percent chance at a bachelor’s degree, a 20 percent chance at an associate degree, a 50 percent shot at a vocational certificate, and a 65 percent chance of a high school diploma.
He gets information on what jobs he might do if he reaches various levels and what he can do now to increase his options. Maybe Ned will work harder, raise his grades, and have a real shot at an associate degree in radiology or a pharmacy tech certificate. Honest information would be great for students—and would reduce colleges’ remedial burden.
J. M. Anderson, a dean at Illinois Valley Community College, adds a 101st idea after teaching a night class for working adults and day classes for traditional-age students: Don’t let anyone under 21 into college.
Kentucky community college students will have a chance to connect with four-year colleges and university at the online Transfer Madness fair on March 6 from 10 am to 10 pm (EST). Students will be able to chat online with transfer advisors, search for scholarships, download materials and get questions answered at their convenience.
“One of the key success factors in the transfer game is connecting with and developing a relationship with four-year institutions prior to attendance,” says Kentucky Community and Technical College System Chancellor Jay Box.
Determined to raise retention rates, Klamath Community College mandated orientation and advising and eliminated late registration, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. The cost of improved retention was lower enrollment. The small college in southern Oregon saw enrollment fall 20 parent last fall, cutting state funds by $800,000, more than 7 percent of Klamath’s total annual budget.
“We have a system that doesn’t reward student success,” said Roberto Gutierrez, the college president. “It rewards seat time.”
Klamath Community College is an Achieving the Dream partner institution.
Achieving the Dream is a vocal supporter of “make it mandatory,” a refrain often used by Kay McClenney, an expert on community colleges and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. McClenney, backed by research, argues that mandatory orientations and advising can boost student retention rates.
For example, prior to last year, only 50 percent of students at Klamath were attending orientation. College officials said that means those students were missing out on vital information about the college and how to navigate it.
Yet many colleges resist the mandatory approach, feeling it is paternalistic and too prescriptive for the large numbers of adult students who attend community colleges, where the average age of students typically hovers around 25. And red tape and hassles, like mandatory scheduling, can discourage students who may have been on the fence about attending college in the first place.
Students who can’t make the time to go to orientation or meet with an advisor probably won’t make the time for college classes, Gutieriez believes.
Banning late registration is hard adult students, who are juggling jobs and family duties. But it’s clear that late registrants have very high failure rates.
Klamath’s new policy “resembles recent decisions by a few for-profits, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which have created free trial periods” for prospective students, Fain writes. Those who realize they’re not ready for college can quit without using up financial aid, running up debt — or raising the university’s failure statistics.
Klamath’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time students is only 17 percent; another 31 percent transfers. That could improve in the future: Fall-to-winter retention rates jumped from 60 percent for first-year students to 80 percent this year.
Instead of focusing on outcomes — degrees attained — researchers need to understand students’ pathways through community college, argues Peter Riley Bahr of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education in What We Don’t Know About Community College Students.
“Pathway” includes: “student course-taking behavior; enrollment patterns; course outcomes; choice of program of study; use of advising, tutoring, and other support services; and a variety of other features that ultimately determine long-term student outcomes.”
. . . student pathways are treated as a mysterious blackbox: students enter college with a given set of characteristics and exit college with or without a credential, but the term-by-term decisions and experiences of students between entry and exit remain largely a mystery.
The policy brief is part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education series for the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford.
Old ideas about higher education are keeping completion rates low at community colleges argues Removing the BA Blinders: Reconceiving Community College Procedures to Improve Student Success, part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.
Outdated norms — “all students should pursue a BA degree, take four years of full-time courses, expect no interim credentials or payoffs, explore only academic fields (labeled “general education”), and require minimal formal guidance” — pose “serious barriers to nontraditional students, write James Rosenbaum, Janet Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan.
In our interviews, community college students report a wide variety of mistakes in college. They take many courses without credits, they receive many credits that do not count toward credentials, they face predictable delays without receiving warning about them, and they receive credentials that have no job payoffs.
Many reformers have BA blinders. They devote great energy to transforming low-achieving students into traditional students by imposing massive amounts of remedial coursework. This BA-centric approach has failed consistently—sometimes with failure rates as high as 83% in national studies, for students placed in the lowest level of remedial coursework.
The researchers compared six community colleges with two for-profit career colleges. The career colleges had a much higher success rate: 57 percent vs 37 percent. For blacks, the difference was striking: While only 19 perent of blacks in community college completed a credential, 64 percent completed at private career colleges.
“Students at private occupational colleges are nearly identical to public community college students in terms of prior test scores, grades, and socioeconomic status,” according to federal data, the researchers point out.
Private career colleges help students earn vocational certificates quickly en route to an associate degree. If they quit after the first certificate, they’ve improved their employment prospects. It’s often a bachelor’s or nothing — usually nothing — for community college students.
In traditional community colleges, students go through a “fail-first” process in which 42% drop out in the first year, 50% of them return, and 53% of them drop out again. In interviews, counselors report that they do not mention their occupational programs to young students (ages 18 to 24). Students are only told about these options if they are returning dropouts or older than age 24.
Since it’s assumed all students should go for a bachelor’s degree, community colleges place students in remedial courses to acquire college-level academic skills and urge first-year students to take a smattering of general education courses. Many students could skip remediation if they were urged to take vocational courses, the report finds. “In our interviews with 48 occupational faculty, most reported that computer networking technicians, medical technicians, and accounting staff only need eighth- to tenth-grade math skills.”
Career colleges structure programs, telling students exactly what to take, require advising, monitor students’ progress carefully and provide job placement services, researchers found. In community colleges, students are on their own — unless they have college-savvy parents who can guide them.
The report recommends seven ways to improve completion:
1. Offer opportunities for quick successes
2. Offer opportunities for quick payoffs
3. Avoid or delay obstacles that prevent success
4. Develop degree ladders
5. Provide structured program pathways with courses in predictable time slots
6. Provide “guardrails” that help guide student progress
7. Emphasize job placement
Many students want a bachelor’s degree because they’ve been told it’s the only path to success. The portion of incoming freshmen that cited ”to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012, reports UCLA’s annual survey of new students at four-year colleges and universities. There are many realistic options for career-minded students with little chance of completing a bachelor’s degree but a fighting shot at a pharmacy tech certificate or an associate degree in computer networking.