First steps in college

Points of Contact initiative helps students make a smooth transition to college
Student tutor Oliver Perrett, left, helps pharmacy technician student Fred Smith in San Jacinto College’s student success center. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College

To prevent “summer melt,” San Jacinto College in Texas is helping students navigate application, registration and enrollment through Points of Contact (POC). Points of Contact presenters introduce new students to financial aid, tutoring services, student life programs and activities, First Year Experience services, career assessment, and guided registration into future courses.

High school graduates are less likely to “melt” over the summer if enrollment and registration is “de-mystified,” says Clare Iannelli, dean of student development at the San Jacinto College North Campus.

The college will track retention and success rates for students exposed to POC.

Shared educational planners at feeder high schools also help students prepare for enrollment, placement testing, course  registration and financial aid application.

How to help students plan, succeed

More students are passing classes and staying in school at Florida’s St. Petersburg College. Writing in Community College Daily, President Bill Law credits an initiative launched two years ago, College Experience: Student Success.

A third of students were failing gatekeeper courses. Minority students, especially African-American males, were doing even worse.

The college added professional and peer tutors, made Learning Support Centers more welcoming, involved more faculty in tutoring and learning support and increased access to 24/7 online tutoring resources.

The number of students visiting learning centers more than doubled in the first year, writes Law. Most who use the centers do so at least five times a semester, significantly raising their odds of earning a “C” or better.

An online tool, My Learning Plan, gives students “up-to-the-minute guidance on where they stand in meeting graduation requirements,” he writes. Students can plan which courses to take several terms in advance and see the impact of dropping a class or changing majors.

College-success course instructors helped students complete a plan and the tool was available online for all students. Students who completed the plan had a significantly higher success rate than those who did not.

The college also helped students explore careers, use career-aptitude tools and set goals.

About a third of the first-time college students entered without a clear goal. Those who worked with an advisor to choose a career path were more likely to return for a second semester.

Online orientation wasn’t enough for poorly prepared students, writes Law. The college now requires an intensive advising session and face-to-face orientation for new students with low test scores. Advisors contact their advisees in the first weeks of class to offer help as needed.

Students assigned to the face-to-face orientation remained enrolled in 92 percent of their classes, the same rate as better-prepared students.

If a student falls behind in class, the instructor uses an “early alert” system to inform a coach or mentor.  Faculty teaching almost 1,000 courses — most for new or underprepared students — have gone through training on using the alert system.

West Virginia: Avoid remedial ‘quicksand’

Remedial classes are the “quicksand of higher education,” James Skidmore, chancellor of West Virginia’s Community and Technical Colleges, told the state board of education.

Sixty-four percent of first-time students in the state are placed in remedial English, math or both. Only 13 percent go on to earn a degree, he said. “Students get in developmental and they never get out.”

Instead of taking remediation courses which do not count for college credit, West Virginia community colleges will begin offering “co-requisites.” These are college-level English and math classes with added support for students that need it.

Colleges will choose whether to offer a five-week “boot camp” to prepare students for the college level, tutoring sessions following each class and/or computer labs.

West Virginia joins Connecticut and Indiana as leaders in redesigning gateway college courses, writes Bruce Vandal of Complete College America. “In total, 22 states have made a commitment to dramatically increase the percent of students who complete gateway college courses in one academic year.”

Colleges create competency-based pilots

Competency-based programs in information technology are in the works at 11 community colleges. Western Governors University, a pioneer in online competency-based education (CBE), is helping with the pilots with financial support from the U.S. Labor Department and the Gates Foundation, write Sally Johnstone, WGU’s vice president for academic advancement, and writer Thad Nodine on Inside Higher Ed. 

Most of the pilots are starting with certificates in fields such as computer system specialist, business software specialist, networking and programming. Students will be able to build on their certificates to earn degrees.

In competency programs, students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills. Learning– not time — is they key variable. At all 11 colleges, faculty members developed the new CBE courses, sometimes working with industry representatives.

For example, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications. Working with instructional designers, faculty members “mapped competencies to content and assessment items.”

In comparison, faculty at Washington’s Columbia Basin College are using existing student objectives and textbooks, write Johnstone and Nodine.

“Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting (at Lone Star College in Texas). “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”

Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said . . . faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”

While instructors are “content experts and mentors,”their roles have shifted “from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement,” write Johnstone and Nodine.

Some colleges are adding support services. At Edmonds Community College in Washington, a “mentor” will check in with each student weekly and serve as a “coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast.”

University takes back remedial role

For years, Metropolitan State University of Denver admitted unprepared students, then sent them to community college for remedial classes. Now, the university is doing some of its own remediation — while students take college-level courses, reports Chalkbeat.

Wanda Holopainen scored low on the math, reading and writing portions of the ACT. Instead of as much as three semesters of community college, she takes Metro State classes with “supplemental academic instruction” (SAI).

Alongside their normal classes, students receive extra support ranging from tutoring and peer study sessions to extra class time where students can receive targeted one-on-one help.

The goal? Reduce the number of students who may never never make it back from a remedial course into a college-level course or receive a degree.

Last year, 40 percent of first-year students at Colorado universities required remediation, reports Chalkbeat. By state law, they’re required to catch up at a community college. 

At Metro State, which has a high remediation rate and a low graduation rate, English and math professors asked the state for permission to take back remediation.

“They’d get admitted and then we told them, ‘you can’t really take our classes,’” said Jessica Parker, a professor in Metro State’s English department. “These are our students and we really wanted to keep them here.”

The English department uses an additional test and an essay to place some low-scoring students out of remediation. 

Those students who still exhibit a need for extra support enroll in one of two programs: an extended version of the introductory writing class spread over two semesters or the regular course with an additional writing lab. In either case, Parker keeps a close eye on their performance, so she or their instructor can intervene if their performance drops.

So far, students are earning fewer low grades and incompletes. The pass rate for SAI students is higher in both English and math than for their classmates. 

“The community colleges resisted [SAI] at first because [remediation] is a huge revenue source,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. But community colleges are adapting. “Even there, they’re going to try and do [remediation] in less time,” said Garcia. “Instead of three semesters of remedial math, they’re going to try and do it in one or two semesters.”

Adjuncts lack training, support

Community colleges depend heavily on part-time faculty but rarely treat them as “full partners in promoting student success,” charges Contingent Commitments: Bringing Part-Time Faculty Into Focus, a new report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE).

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Adjuncts teach 58 percent of community college classes, CCCSE reports. They work for much less money than full-time instructors and for minimal or no benefits.

Part-timers teach the neediest students: More than three-quarters of developmental education faculty are adjuncts.

Adjuncts are less likely to refer students to counselors, tutors or labs, perhaps because they’re less aware of support services.

Though many part-time faculty express their passion for teaching and commitment to student success, many also see themselves as outsiders in the colleges where they work. Many do not find out whether they will be teaching classes until just days before the term begins. Their access to orientation, professional development, college services, or office space to do their own work and meet with students is limited or simply unavailable. They rarely, if ever, are engaged in interaction with their peers or in campus discussions about the steps colleges need to take to improve student learning, persistence, and completion.

In focus groups, adjuncts complained they’d never been told how to make copies or find their mail boxes.

Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty,, edited by Adrianna Kezar, suggests ways colleges could improve working conditions for the “new majority” of contingent instructors.

High school dropouts try college

Dropouts are trying to finish high school at community college, reports Northeast Ohio Public Radio.

Owens Community College staffer Michelle Atkinson hands out “Eleven Commandments” to Gateway to College students. Included are: “Never miss class, pay attention in class, pretend you’re interested even when you’re not.”

Gateway to College, a national program, gives high-risk students a second chance, says Atkinson.

“They might have been having trouble socially, they might not have been challenged enough,” she said. “So putting them into a college environment might put them into a little bit more independence where they have to rise and meet the academic endeavors that they need to in order to succeed.”

Students begin by taking classes in reading, writing, math and college skills.  Once they’ve completed high school, they can begin earning college credits.

It’s a challenge, says Gateway director James Jackson. “Basically, we’re taking kids that were not successful in high school and putting them in college and expecting them to be successful.”

Students, all Toledo residents between 16 and 21, must read at the ninth grade level or better and have completed at least five high school credits. At the mandatory interview Jackson listens to how applicants talk about themselves. 

“Are they the victim in all of the stories, are they the heroes in all of their stories, or do they have that balance that most of us have,” he said. “And what I’ve found, some students have terrible home life situations, we’re talking abusive families, extreme poverty, but despite all of those odds against them, they still believe that they’re worth getting their high school education.”

Matthew Tammarine, 18, dropped out of a traditional high school and then a virtual charter, before enrolling as a Gateway student at Owens two years ago. He’s on track to earn an associate degree in two more years. Last semester, he had a B average. Tutoring and meetings with peer mentors have helped. Gateway students also get bus passes, a daily lunch and access to staff members.

America’s Forgotten Student Population looks at how community colleges can create paths to college success for GED completers.

Closing the social-class gap

A one-hour intervention focused on “difference education” can close the achievement gap by 63 percent for first-generation students, according to a study described in an upcoming article in Psychological Science. 

In the difference-education intervention, third- and fourth-year student panelists discussed problems and success strategies that they linked to their social class. In the “standard intervention,” they discussed the same issues without talking about their family backgrounds.

A panelist in the difference-education intervention said: “Because my parents didn’t go to college, they weren’t always able to provide me the advice I needed. So it was sometimes hard to figure out what classes to take and what I wanted to do in the future. But there are other people who can provide that advice, and I learned that I needed to rely on my adviser more than other students.”

A panelist in the standard intervention also talked about the difficulty of choosing classes and of the need to rely on professors, mentors and other campus resources but did not mention her social class background.

First-generation students who’d heard advice based on social class at the start of the year earned higher grades and “reported better outcomes on psychological well-being, social fit, perspective taking and appreciation of diversity” than similar students who’d received the standard intervention. They were more likely to meet with professors outside of class and get extra tutoring.

“Students whose parents have earned a degree come to college with lots of know-how and cultural capital that helps them navigate college’s often unspoken rules,” Northwestern psychologist Nicole Stephens says. “Talking about social class gives first-generation students a framework to understand how their own backgrounds matter in college, what unique obstacles they may face and see that people like them can be successful.”

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.”

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education, reports Stateline. But some say remedial reforms will doom the college hopes of poorly prepared students.

Indiana high schools must provide extra help to students at risk of placing into remedial classes in college.

Florida will let many public college students skip developmental classes and enroll in college-level courses.

Colorado now lets state universities place borderline students in college-level classes, with extra support, instead of sending them  to community colleges for remedial classes.

Starting in fall 2014, Connecticut’s public colleges will be required to build remedial education into credit-bearing courses. Students will be allowed only one semester of remediation.

Many of the new remediation models work very well for students who need minimal extra help, said Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education. But for students who need more time to get their skills up to college level, she said, “placing them in courses for which they are not prepared is akin to setting them up for failure.”

“We learned in the 1960s that allowing students to take and fail college level courses and retake those classes did not increase completion rates,” Levine-Brown said. “In fact, it resulted in high withdrawal rates and diminished finances for students.”

Unprepared students will pay a price for skipping remediation, predicts Kenneth Ross, vice president for academic and student services at Polk State College in Florida.  “I think they’re going to struggle, and unless we have some other kind of massive tutoring support which they’ve not funded us for,  they’re going  . . . to struggle and then flunk out.”