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.

Online students want more guidance

Online students expect a lot of support from instructors. Online teachers think students should be independent. The misaligned expectations lead to “frustration, confusion, and tension,” concludes a Community College Research Center study by Rachel Hare Bork and Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana. They interviewed students and instructors at two Virginia community colleges.

. . . most instructors felt that students should be solely responsible for being motivated, identifying the most important material, prioritizing course-related tasks, reviewing assignments in advance, and asking any questions of the instructor several days before assignments are due.

While students agreed that students should manage their time well and perform course tasks and assignments on schedule, they expected instructors to work more actively to make key tasks, material, priorities, and assignments clear; to motivate student learning by ensuring that materials were engaging; to inject their own presence into the course; and to support student learning by being proactive in providing substantive feedback.

Students expected written feedback on assignments. Instructors typically provided only a grade, expecting students to ask questions if they needed more information.

Students were disappointed when instructors didn’t comment on their discussion board posts. One student complained:

She’ll give us questions and in those questions it might ask you “Discuss such-and-such, being in depth with this, be specific with that” and you can put your opinion in there. But the thing is … you don’t get any feedback. And so it feels like “Why am I telling you anything if you don’t really [read it]? I mean like you are not responding to me in any kind of way.”

While students liked YouTube or PBS audiovisual clips, but they strongly preferred multimedia presentations created by the instructor. Hearing and seeing the instructor “provided a personal touch . . .  giving students the sense that the instructor was actively teaching them.”

Students wanted teachers to “have a strong and frequent presence” online to guide them through the learning process.

Another student suggested that online instructors were implicitly telling students that they had to learn course content independently. “I think the problem with online teaching is that the teachers kind of tell you ‘Okay, here’s the book, you know, study pages 12 through 23 and know this for a test in a few days.’” The student continued that this approach did not work for him because “I can’t teach myself math.”

Many instructors saw themselves as course designers and managers rather than teachers.

Colleges should prepare students for the demands of studying online, the researchers suggest. Distance-learning orientation — offered before and during registration — could help students decide if they should take the course online or in a face-to-face classroom.

Readiness activities should provide practice in skills and knowledge needed for online learning, they add. They recommend “mandatory modules on time‐management, self-directed learning and computer literacy.”

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.”

Late enrollment leads to failure

Late enrollment sets students up to fail, writes an anonymous community college administrator in Inside Higher Ed.

In the name of access, many community colleges set no deadlines to enroll or apply for financial aid, Anonymous writes. Students can self-select into the classes they want, even if they’ve failed the placement test. They can start a week late, missing two or three classes.

We worry over our rising student loan default numbers. We struggle to improve our retention and completion rates and yet we have created a system that makes it OK for college to be a last-minute decision, where our most at-risk students start out behind and many never catch up. We force our professors to take students who will be seriously behind on their first day in class, and who will either sidetrack the instructor or fall more behind. Instructors, especially in our core classes, must balance trying to meet the course objectives while also providing in-class remediation for underprepared students.

Late enrollment often leads to academic failure, the administrator writes. Dropouts often have student loans that they won’t be able to pay.

Anonymous proposes:

Application and enrollment deadlines that ensure a student has enough time to get financial aid and payment plans in place before the semester begins. We need to have deadlines in place so a student knows that being successful requires planning and some time getting his or her life organized to be a student. A student who misses the deadline for enrollment isn’t told “no,” they are told “next semester.”

Mandatory orientation for all new students. We have a moral obligation to ensure that students have been informed of the institutions’ expectations, policies and practices before students try to begin navigating our increasingly large bureaucracies.

Required placement and advising prior to the first semester of enrollment. Students should start knowing what they’ll need to graduate, what classes they are truly ready for and what their academic plan will be.

Some community colleges have ended late enrollment to raise student success rates. In a 2002 study, 80 percent of on-time students made it to the next semester, compared to 35 percent of late registrants.

California community colleges start recovery

After three very tough years, California’s new state budget puts community colleges on a slow path to recovery, reports Kathy Baron on EdSource Today.

The state’s 112 community colleges will get up to $6 billion for the 2013-14 fiscal year, a $200 million boost over this year. That’s only a quarter of the $809 million cut from community college budgets in the last three years.

Colleges will get $89.4 million to rebuild enrollment, enough for 40,000 additional students. The system lost 470,000 students during the bad years, officials estimate.

Other budget increases include:

$50 million to implement the Student Success Act of 2012, which includes counseling and advising services, orientation for every student, and helping each student design an education plan with a path to a degree or certificate or to transfer to a four-year college.

$47 million to implement Proposition 39, the November ballot initiative that creates a fund for energy efficient projects. . . .

$30 million toward the $1 billion needed for deferred maintenance on the campuses, plus new books, lab equipment and technology to modernize classrooms.

The per-student apportionment went up to $4,637, up from $4,565.


It’s the learning, stupid

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.

CCs try to double the number of grads by 2020

Community college leaders are trying to double the number of graduates by 2020 to meet President Obama’s targets. It’s not easy, writes Stacy Collett in Community College Journal.

For administrators at Harper College in Illinois, 10,604 is the magic number—it’s the college’s share of the 5 million additional community college graduates President Obama challenged the nation’s two-year career and technical institutions to contribute to the economy by 2020. (That’s in addition to the college’s current trajectory of 21,000 credentialed students by 2020.)

Harper started by reaching out to students who were a few credits short of an associate degree. Some already had earned those credits at other institutions; others just needed a few classes. Now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, raising the number of graduates will get harder.

“Many people working in community colleges still do not understand how abysmal our graduation rates or our student retention rates or course completion rates are,” says Angela Oriano, associate director at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin.

Completion rates are up 125 percent at Snead State Community College (SSCC) in Alabama since it started a campaign encouraging   students to “finish what you start.” The college redesigned orientation, eliminated unneeded requirements, such as speech and computer training, and even dropped a $15″cap and gown” fee.

When Cindy Miles became chancellor at California’s Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (GCCCD) in 2009, a dismal 3 percent of the 4,000 freshmen who entered the college in 2006 had earned a degree, yet 1,900 had successfully transferred to a four-year university by 2009.

“High numbers of transfer students who come to us don’t care if they get that degree,” Miles explains. “We’re trying to ascertain what the student’s version of success is, and we’re now trying to show value in the associate degree before they transfer.”

Four-year graduation rates are much higher for students who transfer with an associate degree.

The Roadmap Project at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pennsylvania helps students plan their college career and understand all the support services available.  The first-year experience initiative includes mandatory orientation and success seminars, help from a success coach and access to walk-in “math cafés” staffed by faculty volunteers.

Iowa colleges focus on retraining, retention

Retraining adults for high-demand jobs and improving graduation rates are the priorities for Iowa community colleges, reports the Gazette. Half the students who enrolled in 2009-10 earned a credential or transferred within three years. Colleges are trying to improve that number.

Des Moines Area Community College is among the schools that now requires an orientation course for all students, said Jeremy Varner, administrator of the community colleges division with the Iowa Department of Education. Other colleges are putting resources into more advising and early-warning programs for when students begin to struggle, he said.

“Getting more through to graduation — that’s where a lot of that focus is,” Varner said.

Kirkwood Community College hopes its math “emporium” will improve retention, ’said Math and Science Dean Lori Woeste.

Students work in a computer lab where an instructor is always on hand for one-on-one discussion, and the students work at their own pace. . . . students signs up for the Prep for College Math course, where they demonstrate competency in the “modules” they are confident about and then focus their time on the areas where they need work, Woeste said.

College officials hope state funding will improve next year, easing the tuition burden on students and funding job training. Iowa is focusing on training workers for jobs in nursing, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

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.

California: Perform or pay

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the Student Success Act, which cuts off fee waivers for students who fall below a C average for two semesters in a row and requires colleges to provide orientation, assessment, placement, counseling and education planning help to new students. At least two-thirds of students qualify for fee waivers. Full tuition has risen to $46 per unit, still below the national average. The bill was amended to remove a provision cutting off waivers for students who’ve already earned 110 credits.

In addition, community colleges will report the academic performance of students with breakdowns by race and socioeconomic status.

It’s hoped students will move more quickly to achieve their goals, freeing up spaces in a system that now places nearly half a million students on wait lists for the classes they need.

In addition, Brown signed bills expanding digital access to free college textbooks.

Brice Harris, who leads the Los Rios Community College District near Sacramento, was named the new chancellor of California Community Colleges.