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Engaging Community College Students

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by Michelle J. Nealy

As soon as they walk through the door, new community college students should see an advisor who will help chart the path students need to follow to achieve their educational goals, but that’s only happening for half of the students, say researchers from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which is releasing a new report today that provides a blueprint for community college student success.=

The new report from CCSSE, based at the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin, highlights key finding from five years of research on the educational experiences of community college students. The report, “Committing to Student Engagement,” offers strategies that work in college efforts to improve student learning and retention.

Community colleges must act intentionally to better retain students and increase the likelihood that they will succeed, by promoting a culture of high expectations and instituting policies that encourage, if not require, faculty-student interaction and student engagement. “Engagement doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by design,” says Dr. Kay McClenney, CCSSE director.

Researchers, who conducted last spring a survey of 310,000 students from more than 520 institutions, say success requires a well-researched approach.

Among their recommendations: community colleges captivate students at the “front door,” during the first four weeks of a student’s academic career. The survey shows that fewer than half of students met with an adviser to discuss education goals in the first four weeks of college, and more than a third of students did not complete an assessment test for course placement by the end of their first four weeks of college.

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Nearly one-third of entering students did not attend an orientation course. Among students who attended an orientation course, slightly more than one-third say they were very satisfied with their experience. Some 89 percent of the respondents said that academic advising and planning were somewhat or very important. The report concludes that successfully completing the first semester of college improves students’ chances of attaining further milestones.

Community colleges should also provide resources for part-time students, whose issues typically go unaddressed. Attending college part-time puts students at greater risk of not attaining their educational goals. Only 15 percent of part-time students complete a degree or certificate six years after enrolling compared with 64 percent of full time students who earned a degree or certificate within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Faculty involvement is imperative to a student’s success, yet only 15 percent of respondents report discussing ideas pertaining to class, grades or assignments with instructors outside of class often or very often compared with 47 percent that never had those conversations. 

Colleges are most likely to engage students when they make engagement inescapable. To increase faculty-student interaction, colleges can require students to see faculty members in their offices at least once. Faculty members can require students to work on projects with other students outside of class, require a service learning project, and so on.

Students benefit when professors push them to participate in school-related extracurricular activities. Some 62 percent of respondents reported their instructors used techniques that encourage them to be actively involved often or very often during their first four weeks of college.

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To maintain a high level of engagement, the report indicates that educators must set a high level of expectations for students and implement the necessary support mechanism to assist students in meeting those high expectations.

“Increasing expectations is only one step toward success. For too many students, the journey starts and ends with aspiration because they have a clear path toward their goals,” McClenney says.

Studies show that expectations drive results. Colleges can help students turn their wishes into concrete plans by requiring them to create academic road maps and then given them support that helps them to stay on track.

“If you want students to succeed, you need to have high expectations. Students know if you’re watering down or caving in,” says Dr. Richard Rhodes, president of El Paso Community College in Texas.

Most students are not on campus enough for engagement to occur spontaneously, says CCSSE researchers. Consequently, most students typically do not get the benefit of spur-of-the-moment conversations about coursework or unplanned study sessions. Being deliberate and aggressively creating opportunities to involve students will spur engagement, the report suggests.

When colleges allocate resources to high-risk students, the students typically described as high-risk — including academically under-prepared students, students of color, first-generation students, and nontraditional learners — are more engaged in their college experience than their peers.

Community colleges cannot significantly strengthen student success unless they first focus on providing effective developmental education and appropriate levels of student support. Colleges that want to better serve academically under-prepared students should begin with accurate and effective placement information. It should also include making sure that there are enough developmental course sections.

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–Michelle J. Nealy

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