Community Colleges

Connecting With Part-Timers Is Key Challenge for Community Colleges, Survey Finds

November 16, 2009

The "part timeness" of students and faculty members is one of the greatest challenges community colleges face in creating strong campus connections, according to this year's Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

Students who enroll part time are less engaged than their full-time peers, and more likely to drop out of college. That likelihood is high at community colleges, where close to two-thirds of students attend part time.

Meanwhile, many instructors at community colleges do not work full time on one campus. Sixty-seven percent of faculty members teach part time, yet typically teach half to two-thirds of all course sections, according to the survey.

"They play a large role in shaping students' experience, yet in far too many colleges they are minimally involved with students beyond the hours they are teaching," says Kay M. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

To engage part-time students, the survey suggests, colleges must make the most of the minimal time they spend on campuses. Colleges can provide support services at times convenient to part-time students or integrate services into required course work. They can also link study-skills courses with developmental courses so that part-time students who need remediation will be more likely to succeed.

In order to close the connection gap, colleges must find ways to offer part-time faculty members the same kinds of instructional support and professional development that are available to their full-time colleagues, the survey recommends.

The annual survey, known as Cessie, focused this year on the importance of connections online, in the classroom, on the campus, and in the community. Specifically, it examined how relationships among students, faculty members, and staff members evolve, the value they add, and the importance of nurturing them.

Ms. McClenney says the center chose to focus on those connections after student focus groups revealed that a relationship with an instructor or staff member was the main reason many students had chosen to stay in college.

A key finding was that many of the most important connections are formed in the classroom. About one in five students (22 percent) responded that they had "often" or "very often" worked with classmates outside of the classroom to prepare assignments, but more than twice as many (47 percent) said they had "often" or "very often" worked with other students on projects during class.

Almost two-thirds of students (64 percent) said that they had asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions "often" or "very often," but only 16 percent had discussed ideas from their classes with instructors outside the class "often" or "very often."

Untapped Potential

Making connections elsewhere on the campus requires planning on the part of colleges, the survey found. The potential for creating on-campus connections is largely untapped, according to the report, which also suggests that colleges can do much more to incorporate off-campus learning activities into mandatory courses.

About one-third of students (32 percent) reported that their colleges had provided the support they needed to thrive socially. Yet 75 percent of full-time students and 88 percent of part-time students reported spending zero hours in a typical seven-day week participating in college-sponsored extracurricular activities.

In addition, half of students (50 percent) reported that they had "often" or "very often" discussed ideas from their classes outside of class with other students, family members, or co-workers. Still, few students were engaged in projects that take place off-campus. More than three quarters of students (77 percent) had "never" participated in a community-based project. And fewer than one in five students (17 percent) had participated in an internship, field experience, co-op experience, or clinical assignment, while 41 percent indicated that they had not had, nor did they plan to have, such an experience.

The survey used data from a three-year cohort of colleges that participated in the survey in 2007, 2008, and 2009. The cohort includes more than 400,000 students from 663 institutions in 48 states, as well as British Columbia, the Marshall Islands, Nova Scotia, and Ontario.

National data from the survey are available in this year's report, "Making Connections: Dimensions of Student Engagement," on the project's Web site.

The 2009 survey included a special focus on students' use of Web 2.0 social-networking tools. Respondents reported steady increases in computer usage, the Internet, and e-mail each year since 2004.

While such technology use was once the province of younger students, the age gap has closed. About 65 percent of all students now use these technologies to work on assignments.

However, age gaps remain for some types of technology, notably social-networking tools like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Traditional-age students—those 18 to 24 years old—are likelier than older students to use social-networking tools multiple times per day "for any purpose."

Traditional-age students are more likely to use social-networking tools to communicate with other students, instructors, or college staff members about their college course work; 27 percent of traditional-age students "never" do so, compared with 49 percent of nontraditional-age students.

Finally, the report describes how some community colleges are enhancing what it calls their virtual space, or online presence. For example, LaGuardia Community College runs "virtual interest groups," online advising seminars for students in different majors. Students who participate in those groups get advice about their career paths and transferring to four-year colleges from faculty members, mentors, advisers, and professionals in the field.

Ms. McClenney acknowledges that there are no easy answers to the issues raised in the survey, especially in a tough economy. "But there is one thing I know," she says. "We are not going to solve problems that we are not looking at."