Community colleges are finding ways to promote student success, concludes A Matter of Degrees, just released by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE). The survey of students, faculty and administrators identifies key policies and practices that improve student engagement and completion.
Setting academic goals is the first step to success. Orientation also can be very useful.
One student told the survey:
“I participated in what my college calls the Student Orientation … . Walking into the room [with] a bunch of other people … they had as little idea of what they were doing as I did. Seriously, you could cut the air in that room with a knife, everyone glancing from side to side, kind of nervously, almost no movement except thumbs over phones. [Then] the speaker started telling us everything we need to know to succeed at our college … financial aid, attendance policies … she just laid it out there for us, kind of a packaged gift to the new students.”
Programs to teach study skills and build a sense of community are beneficial for new students, the survey found. These include learning communities, ”first-year experience” programs and student success courses.
Accelerated or fast-track developmental education helped poorly prepared students.
Also beneficial: Experiential learning, tutoring and a clearly explained class attendance policy and penalties for missing classes.
Glen Oaks Community College (MI) stresses attendance in its mandatory orientation program, the report notes.
The college requires all full-time and part-time faculty to track and report attendance during the first three weeks of the term. Absences are reported to student services, including financial aid advisors, who use this information to contact students so they can explain financial aid implications and attempt to get the students back to class. The financial aid office may freeze financial aid for students who are not attending class regularly. This approach also helps minimize the number of students who jeopardize their financial aid eligibility. Each student receives a letter outlining six alternatives, from seeking free tutoring to withdrawing from the course.
Students are reminded that if they miss more than 15% of class time in any semester, instructors have the authority to withdraw them from class.
Students also are more likely to succeed if their college uses an alert and intervention system to let them know they’re falling behind.
High-quality implementation is critical, according to CCCSE Director Kay McClenney. “Improved student success and college completion isn’t about having a checklist, or one of everything—a collection of boutique programs.”
Financial aid counselors should “rethink their role in student retention” to help first-generation students, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab on Education Optimists. Helping students succeed should be a “cross-campus effort.”
“Students who have overcome enormous challenges” to get to college often struggle academically, she writes. They must make Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) — usually a C average — to retain financial aid.
However, many first-generation students don’t know how to raise their grades and “are ill-equipped to sort out good advice from bad advice,” writes Goldrick-Rab.
They have little external support, experience more family crises, work longer hours, and are often more averse to taking on loans. While they might want to seek out help from others, that help is often offered only during daytime hours when their schedules are packed. In addition, when told they they should take on loans, they feel alienated and misunderstood.
Financial aid officers, often the first to know a student is in trouble, should sound an early warning. This would trigger proactive efforts to offer comprehensive advising that “integrates academic, financial, and family support.”
El Camino College (California) publishes a report on students who lose aid due to failure to make SAP. More colleges should be “open and honest” about the challenges, Goldrick-Rab concludes.
“Proactive” college advisors should guide students to a program of study or “pathway” to boost success rates, says Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. Currently, less than a third of the state’s college students graduate on time.
“Indiana students often experience college as a maze rather than as path to success, and many finish with debt and no degree,” said Lubbers. “With clear degree maps, proactive advising and related strategies, we can empower students to make better decisions, save time and money, and increase their likelihood of earning a degree.”
With “clearer direction, simplified choices and more structured support” students will move more quickly — and cheaply — to graduation, Lubbers argues.
A new state study, Guided Pathways to Success, recommends:
• Supplementing college advising with structured degree maps that simplify the course-selection process and provide students with a clear path to graduate on time
• Encouraging students to complete 15 credits each semester; or 30 credits per academic year
• Instituting proactive advising practices that intervene when students fail to complete key milestone courses, take courses on their degree map, or make satisfactory academic progress
• Expanding block scheduling options that offer greater consistency and predictability, making it easier for working students to balance their schooling with work and family obligations
Complete College America advocates guided pathways to speed students to a degree. Students make the “big choice” of a major or program. After that, “all the other choices of necessary credits and course sequences are laid out for them.”
The average bachelor’s degree graduate earned more than 136 credits; 120 is usually enough. Associate degrees require 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned nearly 80. “Worse, certificate earners graduated with more than double the ordinary number of credits expected: More than 63 credits were achieved instead of the 30 normally needed for programs designed to be accomplished in one year.”
Excess credits are estimated to cost more than $19 billion each year.
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.