An Award-Winning Dissertation Draws Lessons From 9 Community-College Students Who Persisted in Their Studies

Courtesy Rosemary Capps

The U. of Utah dissertation Rosemary Capps wrote on the lives of nine enduring community-college students received an award from the American Educational Research Association.
April 11, 2011

Students who start community college after they have turned 25 often struggle to stay enrolled. Such students generally earn better grades than their younger classmates, but jobs, family obligations, and financial burdens make them less likely to persist in their studies. For adult students who must begin college with remedial-reading courses that are not for credit, the odds are even longer.

But some of those students do persist, and Rosemary Capps says colleges could learn lessons from their tenacity. For her 2010 University of Utah dissertation, which won an award this past weekend at the American Educational Research Association's meeting in New Orleans, Ms. Capps studied the lives of nine enduring students at an unnamed community college in the West. The students—six of whom were older than 25—were assigned to a developmental-reading class in the fall of 2008, and stayed enrolled at the college at least through 2009, even as many of their classmates dropped out.

Ms. Capps, who is now an academic developer at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Davis, spoke to The Chronicle last week.

Q. What do you believe community colleges could learn by listening to their most persistent adult students?

A. The first thing they could learn is that these students' in-class and off-campus experiences matter a lot, but their out-of-class, on-campus experiences matter much less. So if colleges want to reach adult students with their retention efforts, they're going to need to reach them in their classrooms, and not through the traditional kinds of advising centers and activities.

Q. When college leaders talk about improving student persistence, they often use Vincent Tinto's model, which links retention to student involvement in campus life. But the successful adult students in your study didn't express much sense of connection with their college, per se. Instead, they said they had strong bonds with specific faculty members.

A. Tinto's integration model has a lot of strengths, especially for traditional students. I see those students now at UC-Davis, and for them, that's how it works. But the model doesn't work so well for older students. Community colleges have generally recognized that the majority of their students are now adult students, and they've recognized that they have to reach out in different ways.

Q. And what about the students' strong bonds with faculty members? The importance of those bonds might seem obvious, but they actually aren't always talked about when people debate student persistence.

A. One of the strong patterns in my data is that knowing students personally and validating them can make a huge difference. I also believe strongly in faculty advising. You see that at elite colleges, and you see that in graduate study, but I think it should happen more at community colleges. Sometimes adult students don't have time to go to an advising center—they have to rush out of class to get to some other obligation. But they might take three minutes at the end of class to talk to a faculty member they trust. "Do you have any ideas about what classes I should take next?" So I think it's important for faculty to get familiar with general-education requirements and the major requirements in their fields, because students who feel comfortable with them are going to come to them first with those questions. That's something that I emphasize now in my job as a faculty developer, that faculty should take a little time to learn more about the broader context in which their students are functioning.

Q. But if you're an adjunct instructor who teaches at three different community colleges, it might not be easy to get familiar with the programs and course requirements at each place.

A. That's very true. And I've been in that position. I recognize that from experience. And often, the instructors in developmental-reading courses are exactly those people—adjuncts with multiple appointments. If colleges want to support adult-student persistence, they need to support those who are at the front lines. If instructors are going to fill that faculty-advising role, they need more support, they need more time, they need more pay, and they need more benefits. Otherwise, they really can't; they're already stretched very thin.

Q. Some recent studies have suggested that developmental courses don't improve community-college students' outcomes. But you recommend that every student who scores poorly on entrance exams should be assigned to a developmental-reading course. Why?

A. That's a controversial one, I know. My data suggest that developmental classes have benefits that go beyond their academic content. Making sure that students have experience in a small class with a caring teacher before they get into the harder content and higher expectations of credit courses—for the nine students in my study, that process seemed to make a difference. Their developmental-reading instructors were champions for them.

Q. Any other policy ideas?

A. Colleges could do more to highlight the stories of their successful adult students. They could set up mentoring programs in which persistent adult students could reach out to adult students who are just starting out. I think that could be very heartening for everyone involved.