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.

Myth: Community colleges are inefficient

It’s a “big fact” that the economic returns to college are high, write Clive Belfield and Davis Jenkins in a Community College Research center paper. It’s a “big myth” that the “college affordability crisis is actually an efficiency crisis caused by wasteful spending by colleges.” That’s especially true for community colleges.

Neglect of this fact and acceptance of this myth have impaired policymaking, resulting in reduced state funding and new practices (more adjuncts, larger classes, online courses) that cut spending and lower quality.

If colleges invest in improving quality, they’ll improve efficiency as well, write Belfield and Jenkins.

Community colleges serve many underprepared students who need substantial support, they point out. Educating college-ready students is cheaper and easier. 

Reforms to remediation, which likely require more (not less) resources, are therefore essential, as are reforms that provide a better articulation between high school and college. Much of the potential efficiency gain would come from improvements at the high school level.

For students already in college, barriers to completion include no-credit remedial courses, college-level courses that don’t meet degree requirements at transfer destinations and “the earning of extraneous credits outside a program area.”

Reforms should include creating more educationally coherent program pathways that lead to student end goals, building on-ramps to help students get into a program of study quickly, and tracking student progress and providing feedback using information technology and reorganized advising.

Low-income and first-generation students, who disproportionately enroll in community colleges, need more information on the returns to college, write Belfield and Jenkins. They also need more “structure and guidance” to succeed in college.

Non-elite students need help to graduate

Harvard lavishes counseling and support on its elite students, while students who really need the help are left to sink or swim, writes David L. Kirp, a Berkeley public policy professor of public policy, in the New York Times.  Non-elite colleges can raise graduation rates by providing structure , guidance and financial aid, he writes.

At the City University of New York’s community colleges, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has more than doubled graduation rates, according to a MDRC report:  56 percent of ASAP students have graduated compared to 23 percent of the control group.

The program for community-college students addresses money issues, which are typically students’ top concern, by covering tuition that’s not paid for by federal and state grants, as well as paying for public transit and giving students free use of textbooks, saving them upward of $900 a year. To help balance the demands of college with work, life and family obligations, students take their classes in a consolidated course schedule (morning, afternoon or evening).

While the added dollars make a big difference, students consistently report in individual profiles found on the CUNY ASAP website that the personal touch — biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising — is crucial. The ASAP adviser for Desiree Rivera, a LaGuardia student, became her life coach. “I am completely able to let my guard down around her and discuss both personal and academic struggles,” Ms. Rivera wrote on her profile. “Her support has played a major role in my success as an ASAP student.”

ASAP costs $3,900 per student each year, but “it’s a solid investment for New York City’s taxpayers,” writes Kirp. “Total lifetime benefits — from increased tax revenues as well as savings in crime, welfare and health costs — are a whopping $205,514 per associate degree graduate,” another study estimates.

CUNY is tripling the size of ASAP by fall. The “strategy merits a nationwide rollout,” writes Kirp. The nation badly needs educated workers.

Online navigators will guide students

“New online tools” will help Washington state community college students choose courses, register on time, check their financial aid status and pay tuition and fees, reports the Seattle Times.

Navigating the state’s community-college landscape can be a bureaucratic nightmare for students — one made all the more maddening by an antiquated computer system.

Though the state’s 34 community and technical colleges make up a unified system, the computer network is a patchwork, lacking anything remotely resembling one-stop shopping for students wanting to manage their education online.

Many parts are 30 years old and students often must log into different applications or sections of a website to accomplish different tasks. Those challenges are intensified for students who attend more than one community college over the course of their education or start and stop it due to the demands of work or family.

Starting in August, a new web-based system, ctcLink, will create an advising center to help students “check registration dates, enroll for classes, review their academic plan, check on financial aid, pay tuition, request a transcript and contact an advisor,” reports the TimesCommunity College of Spokane and Tacoma Community College will pilot the new system.

In addition, the University of Washington is developing a new academic planner that will help community college students see how their credits will transfer, apply for a major and plan their four-year degrees.

Keys to success: Plan, orient, accelerate, nag

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.”

Link financial aid advisors to retention

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.

Indiana adopts guided pathways model

“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.

Too much information

Why weren’t Monroe Community College students registering early? The New York college was bombarding students with too much information, reports Inside Higher Ed.

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.