Faculty focus on student retention

Faculty are taking the lead in improving retention at North Carolina’s Southwest Community College, reports the American Association of Community Colleges.

Called Retention Action Committees, or RATs, the organized groups, which began as a cost-cutting measure, were the brainchild of Thom Brooks, vice president of instruction and student learning for the college.

Knowing the college didn’t have the budget to outsource retention efforts, Brooks turned instead to passionate faculty who recognized there was a problem and could identify ways to keep students engaged.

“We really had to roll up our sleeves and start eating the elephant one bite at a time,” Brooks says.

Thirteen small task forces focus on specific goals such as college readiness, data analysis, curriculum mapping and test preparation.

RATs has revived a student success course and made it mandatory for first-year students. After orientation, a new retention alert process warns faculty when students are facing academic or behavioral problems so they can provide support before students drop out.

Online ed grows as retention gap narrows

Online enrollment grew by 5.2 percent at community colleges from fall 2012 to fall 2013, even as traditional enrollment declined, reports the Instructional Technology Council’s 2013 Distance Education Survey. Twenty-six percent of community college students enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2012, according to IPEDS data.

“The retention gap” between online and traditional students  “has narrowed dramatically” in the past nine years, ITC reports.  Colleges are shifting their focus from adding online offerings to improving the quality of online courses.

MOOCs have not caught on.

Most community college distance education administrators and faculty remain skeptical of massive open online courses (MOOCs) due to their low student retention rates, low teacher-to-student interaction, inability to authenticate students, and lack of financial sustainability. A few community colleges have received grant funding from private foundations to develop MOOCs that offer self-paced online orientations and remedial help, but few community colleges have created a financially-sustainable model for creating MOOCs for their students.

Only half of the community colleges surveyed are able to meet the growing student demand for distance education courses.

For needy students, a Single Stop for aid

Homeless, Jason showered at the gym at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After class, he did his homework in the library, then slept in a quiet corner. When the library closed, he rode the subway all night. Failing three of his four classes, he asked for help at Single Stop, which connects low-income people with a wide array of government benefits.  Deborah Harte got him off the streets, reports the New York Times.

She got him enrolled in SNAP, the federal food stamp program, and health insurance. He got financial counseling — “I want to be an accountant, so I want to make sure my credit’s O.K.,” he said. He did his taxes and filed a FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She got him a work-study job. (He was already working part time as an usher at Radio City.) Most important, Harte called someone she knew who worked in real estate and got him a room he could afford, with a shared kitchen and bathroom, in a house in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Jason expects to graduate soon. 

Community colleges “are largely second-chance schools for striving low-wage workers — an engine of economic mobility,” writes Tina Rosenberg. Single Stop is partnering with community colleges in eight states to help strivers get the aid they need to stay in school and achieve their goals.

“Community college administrators have always known students leave, and their No. 1 job has been keeping them,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who is carrying out evaluations of Single Stop. “They’ve always wanted to do more — but the issue is: with what resources?”

Now they have a new financial motivation to find resources. State funding of community colleges is increasingly tied to their retention or graduation rates — six states did so in 2011, and now 34 states are in the process of adopting that reform or have already adopted it.

The B.M.C.C. office has a financial counselor, a health care navigator and, one day a week, an attorney. Students can get free tax preparation: They must file a return to qualify for federal student aid and the earned-income tax credit.

Can Single Stop keep students in school?

Goldrick-Rab analyzed the early data from CUNY colleges Kingsborough (Single Stop’s first community college program) and LaGuardia. She compared retention rates of Single Stop clients to a group of other students considered economically disadvantaged who didn’t use the service. Although the Single Stop students were most likely much poorer, a year after the program began their retention rates were 32 percent higher — 66 percent of other students re-enrolled the next semester, but 98 percent of the Single Stop students did. LaGuardia showed similar results.

On average, community colleges contribute 43 percent of the cost of a Single Site office on campus.

Miami Dade College has hired 28 counselors to provide one-stop advising — including financial aid, student services and eligibility for benefits — to all students. All will be trained by Single Stop.

25 states pass graduation incentives

Performance based funding for higher education institutions
Performance based funding for higher education institutions

Twenty-five states now link college funding — typically 5 percent of higher ed dollars — to performance requirements, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States are trying to raise graduation rates, reports the Washington Post. Some aim performance funding incentives at community colleges and others at state universities,while 16 states measure both two- and four-year institutions.

In addition to measuring graduation rates, some states give performance points for higher numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Florida judges four-year universities, in part, by their graduates’ earnings.

Louisiana is linking funding to improvements in student retention at two- and four-year institutions.

Massachusetts community colleges will have to pay more attention to performance metrics than most schools in other states. The Bay State will award half of all base funding to schools that issue the highest percentage of certificates, and where students complete the highest number of entry-level math and English courses.

Five more states — Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, Georgia and Virginia — are planning performance-based funding mechanisms.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed expanding outcomes-based funding” to community colleges writes Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Community colleges will be rewarded not just for enrolling students but for helping them earn “meaningful credentials.”

The plan will use “benchmarks such as how many of their students complete their courses; how many succeed in remedial math and English; how many complete associate degrees and certificates; and how many successfully transfer to four-year institutions. writes Merisotis. “Colleges will be rewarded for success with adult, low-income and minority students, and a plan is under way to include students that arrive on campus academically underprepared.”

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.

CCs recruit diverse students to teaching

Community college can be the first step to a teaching career. The National Association of Community College Teacher Education Programs (NACCTEP) is working to diversify the teacher workforce, reports Community College Week.

Leeward Community College in Oahu is trying to encourage Native Hawaiian and Filipino students to earn an AA in teaching. Half of public school students — but only 15 percent of teachers — come from these ethnicities.

Leeward’s AAT program reaches out to high school students and to teacher aides. Students complete an academic plan. Peer mentors — current or former AAT students — provide counseling and tutoring. That’s raised completion rates to 80 percent.

At Santa Ana College in California, would-be teachers can turn to the Center for Teacher Education (CFTE) for help. Seventy-nine percent are Latino and a majority of first-generation college students, says Steve Bautista, a coordinator and counselor. 

For most of our low-income students, the cost of books is one of the biggest barriers to attending college. One of the most successful and popular services and strategies for retention has been the Center’s Textbook Loan Program. Students who want to participate are required to register with the center, attend an information session on the pathway to teaching, and develop an educational plan with a counselor. In return, the students have the opportunity to borrow textbooks . . . 

Once CFTE identifies students who want to be teachers, counselors can explain pathways to teaching, connect students to support services and help them “develop an educational plan that will lead to graduation and transfer,” writes Bautista. Retention rates are high.

ASAP isn’t for everyone

Student retention has improved at New York City community colleges that offer the ASAP program, writes Matt Reed, in response to an Atlantic story. ASAP requires students to enroll full-time and provides “intrusive” advisors who function as “something between a truant officer and a personal trainer,” writes Reed. “It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement.”

Among other things, it solves — by essentially ruling out — the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility.  Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program.  (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.)  The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped.  And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work.  Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.

. . . Beyond the money, though — and let’s not forget the money — a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges.  There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.

Nontraditional students “don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time,” Reed observes. He cites an argument in Slate:    “Failure is actually one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system,” writes Tressie McMillan Cottom. “In no other country can a student fail so often, so spectacularly, with such a low penalty. Especially for nontraditional students, failure may be underrated.”

The full-time, double-the-cost ASAP model isn’t a practical answer for most colleges, Reed concludes.

E-advising tries to fill guidance gap

With an average of 1,000 students for every advisor, most community college students are figuring things out on their own, notes the National Journal. Advising software is trying to fill the guidance gap.

 “A lot of community-college students end up taking courses that don’t count, either toward their degree in the community college, or, if they want to transfer somewhere, that their transfer school’s not going to accept,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

Students who switch paths can run out of financial-aid eligibility and drop out.

Software developed by Washington research and consulting company Education Advisory Board has helped four-year schools like Georgia State University increase graduation and retention rates. As the EAB tries to develop a similar product for two-year schools, it finds itself up against a much bigger challenge.

“We actually think that the moment where education is imperative, and currently lacking, is at the very beginning of a student’s life cycle at an institution—really the intake process,” says Sarah Zauner, research director of EAB’s community college forum. The proposed tool would encourage students to define their goals, and then alert them when they veer off track.

EAB’s product alerts advisers at four-year schools, but the two-year version will be designed for use by students.

The product—still in its early stages—would invite students to answer questions about academic strengths and interests, their family income and time constraints, and the degree or certificate they’re aiming for. Based on that information, the tool would suggest majors and degree programs, and provide information on salaries earned by comparable graduates of those programs. The two-year product would alert students when they veer off course and give them advice, like directions to the campus tutoring center.

“E-advising” isn’t new at community colleges, says Jaggars. Most online systems help students plan and warn if they’re off track. But not all students use e-advising.

Even when online information is clear, students like to “have some kind of a person” to go to with questions, says Jaggars. Her team advised Michigan’s Macomb Community College to free counselors “to spend less time dealing with the logistics of enrolling students in courses and more time helping them set goals.”

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.

Performance funding doesn’t boost success

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President Obama’s higher education plan praises performance funding in Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee, but two new Community College Research Center (CCRC) studies find “little evidence that performance funding improves student success,” says researcher Kevin Dougherty. “It remains very much in the experimental stage.”

Envisioning Performance Funding Impacts and Performance Funding for Higher Education look at Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee, which have tied substantial higher education funding to student success measures, such as retention and graduation rates.

. . . in states where funding for public colleges and universities is tied to student performance, colleges struggle to pinpoint the causes of poor student outcomes, develop and implement meaningful solutions, and track whether the solutions are improving student success. Additionally, performance funding has the potential to produce strong negative side effects, such as lowered standards, decreased access for at-risk students, and a weakened faculty voice.

“State policymakers tend to assume that if there is enough money on the table, schools will figure out how to get retention and graduation numbers up,” Dougherty says.

But colleges need help to research their problems and find solutions. Without that, there’s a risk they’ll improve their numbers by restricting access and lowering expectations. Performance funding plans should include “financial incentives for enrolling at-risk students and systems to track whether colleges are keeping up academic standards,” Dougherty advises.