Student-Success Courses Hold Promise but Need Improvement, Study Finds

October 22, 2012

In an effort to improve retention and graduation rates, many institutions offer "College 101" courses alongside traditional academic ones: The goal is to teach students skills for success in the campus environment.

However, a recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College has found that while such courses hold promise for improving students' completion rates, the models must be strengthened to achieve the intended effects.

"These courses are prominent, but are not taken seriously," said Melinda M. Karp, senior research associate at the center and lead author of a working paper that describes the study's findings. With improvements, she said, colleges "could leverage something that already exists to help students more."

Despite the popularity of student-success courses—according to two surveys cited by the report, 87 percent of institutions offer them and nearly half of first-year students take advantage—their outcomes are unclear, the report says. Low college completion rates around the country, it says, make attention to such courses urgent.

The report, "College 101 Courses for Applied Learning and Student Success," analyzes courses at three community colleges in Virginia, based in part on interviews with about 170 administrators, instructors, and students. The courses, known as student-development, or SDV, courses, cover an array of skills, such as time management and goal setting, as well as balancing a checkbook and even retirement planning. But that broad range of topics, the study says, doesn't allow instructors to go into topics in depth, really teaching students how to apply each skill.

Courses tend to fall short because of a variety of factors, including structure and content, staffing choices, and duration, the report says. It recommends narrowing content to leave more time for important topics and making classroom activities more reflective and interactive. Also, the report says, colleges should engage academic departments in the courses.

Some of those points are familiar at Germanna Community College, in Fredericksburg, Va., even though it wasn't part of the study. The one-credit student-development courses there cover a lot of introductory concepts, including reading skills, note taking, and career development. But there isn't time to delve deeper, said Mark A. Haines, coordinator of counseling services.

"Expanding the courses to two to three credits would allow us to go more in-depth and focused," he said, "and also bounce some information off classes students are already taking, such as math and English."

Of course, tight budgets can be a constraint. "Sure, there is more we can do, if we had the resources," said Antwan L. Perry, an instructor of the success courses at Germanna. "But we utilize what we have very well."

Stephanie G. Little, a first-year student at Germanna, is in a student-development course this semester. She says it has helped her break out of her comfort zone and learn to work in a team—skills she thinks will improve her job prospects.

College 101 courses done well can help students develop critical skills for the short and long term, said Ms. Karp. "This is the type of intervention that can be very meaningful for them," she said. "It can be the difference between making it to the end of a semester, or to completion and beyond."