6 Strategies Can Help Entering Community-College Students Succeed

March 29, 2010

Even though most community-college students say they are motivated, many haven't developed the habits that could lead them to actually achieve their academic goals.

That was a key finding of a new national survey of community- and technical-college students that is being released on Monday. A report on the survey, "Benchmarking and Benchmarks: Effective Practice With Entering Students," provides six benchmarks for colleges that are trying to improve students' habits during the critical first three weeks of class.

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement, or Sense, which is administered by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, was given to more than 50,000 new students at 120 community colleges during the fourth and fifth weeks of classes in fall 2009 to assess early impressions of institutional practices and student behaviors. The survey began in 2007 with a pilot test involving 22 colleges.

While 90 percent of community-college students said they agreed or strongly agreed that they had the motivation to do what it took to succeed in college and 85 percent believed they were academically prepared, about 33 percent said they had already turned in an assignment late and 24 percent of students said they neglected to turn in an assignment at all. A quarter of the students surveyed also reported that they skipped class one or more times within the first three weeks of class.

Goal-Thwarting Behavior

Angela Oriano-Darnall, assistant director of the survey, said students' goals when they first enroll at community colleges are sometimes negated by their actual habits in the classroom.

"That gap between students' aspirations and those behaviors that we know do not better prepare them for success in college, ultimately result in high attrition rates among community-college students," she said.

The six benchmarks listed in the report offer staff members and administrators ideas about how to help more students stay in college and graduate or transfer. They are fostering "college readiness" programs for high-school students, connecting early with students, encouraging faculty and staff members to have high expectations for students, providing a clear academic path, engaging students in the learning process, and maintaining an academic and social-support network.

Iowa Valley Community College District, for example, provides lunch-hour workshops to support new students academically and socially. The lunches have been particularly helpful for students, like laid-off workers, who were surprised to find themselves back in the classroom.

Recently two local factories shut down and another downsized, sending about 150 blue-collar workers to Iowa Valley to retrain for other jobs.

"They were people who, for lack of a better way to say it, never had to think like college students before," said Jim A. Merritt, director of the career and employment center at Iowa Valley.

Staff members and administrators reviewed the new students' answers from a 2008 field test of Sense to determine their needs and perceptions about academic success. They then administered a separate questionnaire to learn what kinds of help students wanted.

Those answers led to the development, in spring 2009, of "lunch and learn" workshops on the topics of preparing for final examinations, interacting with student advisers, and taking online courses.

Iowa Valley also helped students connect early with staff members (one of the key benchmarks) during the workshops. "We really wanted to put faces in front of the students," Mr. Merritt said. "We really wanted to do it in person so they could see those people, get to know them, and learn their names. Retention really goes up when they make a personal connection."

Keeping Students Engaged

Retention did seem to rise as a result of the workshops. The retention rate of the 78 students who participated in the spring workshops was 93 percent the following fall, compared with the general student-retention rate of 75 percent over the same period.

Connecting students to community-college faculty and staff members, whether through workshops or even academic advising, can also help create a clear academic plan for students, another benchmark identified in the survey.

While the majority of students said they had help setting academic goals and choosing classes in their first semester, about 30 percent said an adviser did not help them choose classes. And 31 percent said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that an adviser helped them set academic goals and create a plan to achieve those goals.

Not only is it important for students to lay out their academic goals with the help of a faculty member, it is also critical for faculty members to have their own set of high expectations for the students they advise. "When entering students perceive clear, high expectations from college staff and faculty," the survey said, "they are more likely to understand what it takes to be successful and adopt behaviors that lead to achievement."

Ms. Oriano-Darnall calls the first few weeks of class the "front door" of the community-college experience, the time when academic habits can be formed. Opportunities to help students during those opening weeks are crucial to bolstering attendance and ultimately graduation, she said.

"We have to focus on the front door of colleges because students don't succeed if they don't come back," she said. "If we can't get them through the first semester or the second semester, they're not going to complete their educational goals."