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Making a Positive Impact in Students’ Lives

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by CORAL M. NOONAN-TERRY AND EVELYN WAIWAIOLE

Along with implementing deliberate retention policies, hiring the right people to encourage students to persist in college is essential.

During its 64-year history, the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin has facilitated numerous studies and research projects. Of course, each initiative has unique findings, but some leave a lasting impression. Several years ago, we conducted focus groups all over the country, eliciting from community college students what motivated them to stay in school and, more important, what caused them to leave. We met with hundreds of students; and to this day, one student story still lingers. Meet Jessica.

Jessica, a young Hispanic woman, was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college. In her own words, “I worked very hard and made a lot of effort during high school to earn scholarships and get into college.” As she told her story, she indicated that her first semester was pretty typical of many students — a few bumps here and there — but in the end, she did well. However, things changed during her second semester when she enrolled in a psychology class. On the first test, she earned a C; unfortunately, her grades declined from there. Eventually, she was failing the class. After one of the exams, her professor told her, “You did not pass this exam. Perhaps you just are not college material. If you can’t pass my exams then you need to rethink college.”

Helping Students

Who are the students that community colleges serve? Today, community and technical colleges in the United States enroll almost half (46 percent) of all undergraduates — or 6.5 million credit students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Community colleges have a unique “open door” mission, giving all students the opportunity to pursue higher education. The students are rich in diversity — 35 percent are minority, 47 percent receive financial aid, 39 percent are the first in their family to attend college, and 60 percent are women, according to the AACC. Community colleges are also the grantors of second chances to many students who have had negative educational experiences. They educate more students in remedial courses than any other type of postsecondary institution. Forty-two percent of students at public two-year colleges are enrolled in at least one remedial reading, writing or mathematics course, compared to 12 to 24 percent at other institutions. With the increasing interest in learning college initiatives, growing awareness of the need to promote higher levels of student success and increased emphasis on state accountability measures, retaining students remains a challenge for colleges. Yet, the pressure has never been greater. Today, most community colleges are taking deliberate steps to implement retention policies and practices, including the following.

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 • Various Course Offerings. Colleges are offering accelerated programs and weekend courses. Programs include eight-week class schedules rather than the traditional 16- week courses. The “weekend college” experience allows students to work full time and attend classes on Saturdays and Sundays.

 • Support Services. Given community college students’ diverse educational experiences and goals, thoughtful and personalized support services are essential (e.g., extended advising hours, including evenings and weekends, Web-based advising options and the financial aid and application process brought to area high schools).

 • Student Success Courses. From day one, students need support and guidance. Orientation and student success courses equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed.

 • Learning Communities. Research suggests that an important factor in student retention is the fostering of an environment that encourages students to connect with faculty and peers. Learning communities involve an intentional restructuring of students’ time, academic credit and learning experiences through linked and block-scheduled courses.

 • The Right People. After learning of Jessica’s story, we were reminded how important it is that each and every person on campus — faculty, advisors, parking attendants, daycare workers, administrative assistants, administrators — has the “opportunity” to make a positive (or negative) impact on a student’s life. Hiring the right people for the right job is essential.

Let’s return to Jessica’s story. How did she respond to being told she was not college material?

After she calmed down, Jessica told her professor, “If you only knew what I actually had to do to get to your class, to actually hear those words come out your mouth, you wouldn’t be saying that to me.”

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Jessica passed the class, and the following semester she was back on the Dean’s List. She used the professor’s comments to fuel her drive to succeed. Most of us know a Jessica — someone who has persisted, despite the obstacles. But instead of leaving students to fend for themselves, colleges must tailor retention policies and practices to their unique student bodies to foster student success.

— Dr. Coral M. Noonan-Terry is the associate director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) and Dr. Evelyn Waiwaiole is director of NISOD. The forum is sponsored in partnership with NISOD at The University of Texas at Austin.

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