Technology: Connecting Students to Their Community Colleges

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by CORAL M. NOONAN-TERRY AND EDWARD J. LEACH

Community colleges have an extremely difficult job trying to connect with students, given that so many drive to campus only to attend class and then return home or to work after the class concludes. In these cases, the only time a student interfaces with the college is during the 50 minutes in class. This leaves a very small window of time to “connect.” How can colleges use technology to reach out to this increasingly demanding and diverse population?

Students who do not live on campus, work full time, are single parents with young children at home and have numerous responsibilities vying for their time — which describes many community college students—are less likely to become immersed in campus life. Students with these responsibilities are less likely to utilize professors’ office hours, engage in campus activities and drive to campus to complete homework assignments in computer labs. In addition, students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are less likely to have a computer at home.

Only 35 percent of community college students own a computer, compared to 81 percent of students at private four-year institutions and 59 percent of students at public four-year institutions, according to a 2006 article in the EDUCAUSE Review. The  ercentage of Black and Hispanic students who have home Internet access is also reason for concern; only 37 percent of Black households and 40 percent of Hispanic households have Internet access, considerably lower than 61 percent of Whites, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s “A Nation Online: How Americans are Expanding Their Use of the Internet.” While the gap remains, many colleges have developed strategies for using
technology to help students become more effectively engagedwith their institutions.

Fixing the Link: Strategies That Work
In order for students to feelmore connected to the college campus and becomemore technology adept — not only required for the classroom, but also in the workplace—community colleges can integrate information technology strategically into students’ college
experiences. Assessing what contributes to this goal is an important component.

Here are two examples of how community colleges can fix the weak technological connectivity links that may impede student success.

Each year, South Texas College, in McAllen, with over 75 percent first-generation and 95 percent Hispanic students, reaches out to its community by hosting “Operation College Bound.” The first such event, at Mission Consolidated Independent School District, encouraged all high school seniors in the district to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and applications to attend South Texas College and The University of Texas, Pan-American. STC and UTPA brought 150 computers and more than 65
staff members to each high school in the district. Last year, over 90 percent of the 750 MCISD seniors had applied for admission to
STC and UTPA. The success of the event has spurred STC and UTPA to offer it in other school districts in the region as they continue to work together to increase the number of college-ready students in South Texas. By strategically using technology and sharing resources, “Operation College Bound” connects
MCISD students and their parents to STCand UTPA. SinceOperation College Bound began, STC has seen enrollment of first-time college
students from MCISD increase by 37 percent.

Another example is Rio Salado College, one of 10 colleges that make up the Maricop a Community College District in greater Phoenix. RSC — a college without walls that specializes in serving working adults through distance learning, customized degrees for business and industry, and accelerated programs for high school students—has placed the services of the entire college online to support its 50 annual start dates and annual 48,000 credit (including 26,000 online learners) and noncredit students. Most RSC students register, get their academic advising and career counseling, use the 24-hour library, receive tutoring, apply for financial aid, and more, all online or by using the telephone, including text messaging and chat. RSC also provides podcasts of college events and other audio materials students find useful. RSC’s strategies to use technology to engage an increasingly diverse student population have resulted in an 85 percent retention rate of their online learners.

Technology can link community colleges with their students and improve opportunity for student success. There are many community colleges with well-established programs and successful strategies for using technology to enhance teaching and learning. But, in addition tomodel programs,we need an overarching
campus strategic plan to reach out and connect these students, particularly from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds,
who have limited access to technology. New technologies continue to become available, andmany have great potential to help colleges
address the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.Bymaking each and every student feel that his or her participation is valued, and by using technology as a tool to fix
thisweak link, the chain of student success can be strengthened.

Dr. Coral M. Noonan-Terry is the associate director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD),
and Dr. Edward J. Leach is the vice president of services and programs at the League for Innovation in the Community College.

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