‘What Excellent Community Colleges Do’

In What Excellent Community Colleges Do, Josh Wyner describes what he’s learned running the Aspen Institute’s awards for community college excellence.

The best colleges have improved graduation rates, learning, workforce success and equity, even as they struggle with inadequate funding, Wyner writes.

Valencia College in Florida, an Aspen winner, eliminated late registration — few latecomers will pass the class — but provided late-start sections of popular classes.

The best colleges don’t blame students for not knowing the “unwritten rules of how to navigate higher education,” adds Matt Reed, the Community College Dean.  

Colleges develop “guided pathways, targeted advising, mandatory counseling, student success courses” and the like to make clear the rules of the game, writes Reed. 

“Wyner is quite good on outlining some of the policy-based dilemmas that community colleges face,” he writes. “Most of the colleges he examines face many of the same fiscal and policy constraints as everyone else, but they’ve managed to find ways to move forward anyway.”

R.I.P. Late Registration

 Late registration is not an option at the College of Southern Nevada, reports Inside Higher Ed. Till this year, students could join a class within three weeks of its start date. Now they must sign up by the night before the first class.  

“Retention is far lower for students who register late,” said Rhonda Glover, national director of data coaching and data strategy for Achieving the Dream, a completion-oriented nonprofit group that works with the College of Southern Nevada and many other community colleges.

By preventing students from entering a class they’re unlikely to complete, Glover said “you’re actually supporting those students in more positive ways than you’re hurting them.”

“Students would wait until the last minute,” says Dennis Soukup, who chairs the college’s applied technology department. That made it hard to teach or to know how many instructors would be needed. 

Some fear the neediest students will be shut out. “The policy is going to block low-income students from enrolling,” said Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor. “They’re the students who have the most problems.”

Late registration hurts students, argues Glover at Achieving the Dream. Her former employer, Valencia College, improved retention by requiring on-time registration, along with other completion policies. Students adjusted, she said. “Once you make the rules, they abide by it.”

CSN added shorter-term courses, usually eight weeks long, with later start dates. A marketing campaign included a flier that read “R.I.P. Late Registration” and included a picture of a tombstone.

Retention’s up, enrollment’s down

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.

On time or not at all

Ending late registration will improve success rates, predict officials at San Jacinto College in Texas. But it will cut tuition revenue and state funding. Failure rates are significantly higher for students who enroll late, notes Inside Higher Ed.

“When you’re funded based on the twelfth day of class, it encourages you to drive enrollment and just keep trying to focus on enrollment,” said Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto chancellor. “But you’ve just got to go with your values. And one of our values is student success. We know we’re going to see results from this.”

Last fall, San Jacinto didn’t allow late registration for remedial courses.  Enrollment grew by 1 percent compared to a 7.5 percent increase for other courses.

Some would-be late registrants enrolled in the college’s “Take 2″ courses, compressed courses on 12-week schedules that start later in the semester.

This fall, no late registration will be allowed. That could affect hundreds of students.

The Texas Association of Community Colleges is lobbying for additional funding to reward community colleges that improve completion rates, instead of funding based solely on enrollment.

South Texas College abolished late registration in 2005. Enrollment declined by 3 percent, but some students would-be late registrants enrolled in “mini-mesters,” 12-week courses that start a few weeks into the semester.

Enrollment rebounded in subsequent years and completion rates have improved.