• August 30, 2015

6 Strategies Can Help Entering Community-College Students Succeed

Even though most community-college students say they are motivated, many haven't developed the habits that could lead them to actually achieve their academic goals.

That was a key finding of a new national survey of community- and technical-college students that is being released on Monday. A report on the survey, "Benchmarking and Benchmarks: Effective Practice With Entering Students," provides six benchmarks for colleges that are trying to improve students' habits during the critical first three weeks of class.

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement, or Sense, which is administered by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, was given to more than 50,000 new students at 120 community colleges during the fourth and fifth weeks of classes in fall 2009 to assess early impressions of institutional practices and student behaviors. The survey began in 2007 with a pilot test involving 22 colleges.

While 90 percent of community-college students said they agreed or strongly agreed that they had the motivation to do what it took to succeed in college and 85 percent believed they were academically prepared, about 33 percent said they had already turned in an assignment late and 24 percent of students said they neglected to turn in an assignment at all. A quarter of the students surveyed also reported that they skipped class one or more times within the first three weeks of class.

Goal-Thwarting Behavior

Angela Oriano-Darnall, assistant director of the survey, said students' goals when they first enroll at community colleges are sometimes negated by their actual habits in the classroom.

"That gap between students' aspirations and those behaviors that we know do not better prepare them for success in college, ultimately result in high attrition rates among community-college students," she said.

The six benchmarks listed in the report offer staff members and administrators ideas about how to help more students stay in college and graduate or transfer. They are fostering "college readiness" programs for high-school students, connecting early with students, encouraging faculty and staff members to have high expectations for students, providing a clear academic path, engaging students in the learning process, and maintaining an academic and social-support network.

Iowa Valley Community College District, for example, provides lunch-hour workshops to support new students academically and socially. The lunches have been particularly helpful for students, like laid-off workers, who were surprised to find themselves back in the classroom.

Recently two local factories shut down and another downsized, sending about 150 blue-collar workers to Iowa Valley to retrain for other jobs.

"They were people who, for lack of a better way to say it, never had to think like college students before," said Jim A. Merritt, director of the career and employment center at Iowa Valley.

Staff members and administrators reviewed the new students' answers from a 2008 field test of Sense to determine their needs and perceptions about academic success. They then administered a separate questionnaire to learn what kinds of help students wanted.

Those answers led to the development, in spring 2009, of "lunch and learn" workshops on the topics of preparing for final examinations, interacting with student advisers, and taking online courses.

Iowa Valley also helped students connect early with staff members (one of the key benchmarks) during the workshops. "We really wanted to put faces in front of the students," Mr. Merritt said. "We really wanted to do it in person so they could see those people, get to know them, and learn their names. Retention really goes up when they make a personal connection."

Keeping Students Engaged

Retention did seem to rise as a result of the workshops. The retention rate of the 78 students who participated in the spring workshops was 93 percent the following fall, compared with the general student-retention rate of 75 percent over the same period.

Connecting students to community-college faculty and staff members, whether through workshops or even academic advising, can also help create a clear academic plan for students, another benchmark identified in the survey.

While the majority of students said they had help setting academic goals and choosing classes in their first semester, about 30 percent said an adviser did not help them choose classes. And 31 percent said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that an adviser helped them set academic goals and create a plan to achieve those goals.

Not only is it important for students to lay out their academic goals with the help of a faculty member, it is also critical for faculty members to have their own set of high expectations for the students they advise. "When entering students perceive clear, high expectations from college staff and faculty," the survey said, "they are more likely to understand what it takes to be successful and adopt behaviors that lead to achievement."

Ms. Oriano-Darnall calls the first few weeks of class the "front door" of the community-college experience, the time when academic habits can be formed. Opportunities to help students during those opening weeks are crucial to bolstering attendance and ultimately graduation, she said.

"We have to focus on the front door of colleges because students don't succeed if they don't come back," she said. "If we can't get them through the first semester or the second semester, they're not going to complete their educational goals."


1. sherbygirl - March 29, 2010 at 09:47 am

I think that these are all excellent idea in terms of ensuring that students are prepared for the demands of higher education. If the community colleges and universities aren't going to offer it, who will?

College teachers on the front lines know that the freshmen students they are teaching are frquently not "college ready," and it worries me that the colleges have to step in to the high schools in order to ensure that the graduates are ready (I'd point to Kevin Carey's post today on the new pressures on teacher's college; if teacher's who graduated from a college can't get their students to be college ready, what is going on?).

Dr. Lee Skallerup

2. thomaslawrencelong - March 29, 2010 at 10:21 am

Community colleges (where I spent most of the first two decades in my academic career) are a uniquely American form of higher education, saying to citizens: When you are ready for us, we are ready for you.

However, most students are confused about what their readiness should entail (having drifted through 12 years of public education where little was expected and less was required). And community colleges lack sufficient resources to be ready to receive them.

My community college students who transferred to the College of William & Mary, however, found an institution that provided them with a variety of support systems and activities to ensure their academic success. Paradoxically, most of them didn't need it; they had all the habits they needed to be ready for a baccalaureate program.

As Lady Day would tell us, "Thems that's got shall get / Thems that's not shall lose."

3. umgrad - March 29, 2010 at 11:04 am

I taught full time at community colleges for eight years, and part-time sporadically for the last ten. I cannot emphasize how true it is that many enrollees are unprepared academically. This situation takes three forms: first, many dropped out of high school ten or twenty years ago and have a lot of school anxiety issues. They most likely were not good students then and hated traditional academic work due to any number or reasons. Second, many enrollees never were strong cognitively, particularly in reading skills, the single most important factor in academic success. Third, many enrollees lack the priorities needed to do "good" academic work. Many of my former students thought that a valid excuse for not doing any reading or other out-of-class assignment was "I had to work" or "I had to take care of my (you name it). Their cultural world view is structured so that , if a (in their minds) reason exists for not doing something, it makes it OK. They are unawares that their competition for jobs is booking it three to five hours a night at other colleges. They have somehow become ecultured to believe that they are to be "given" the academic credentials without "earning" them, like social promotion in high schools. That feeling is stronger in a community college, because there is the added justification of "paying for it".
The best strategies for handling these deficiencies are 1) make a personal connection with students to let them know you care, and be sure to let them know about out-of-class help opportunities; 2) be understanding of their lives, many in desperate poverty, and be flexible but hold the line in the name of fairness to the other students. No student will admit to wanting special treatment not offered others. 3) make them very specifically aware of what it takes to be considered a "success" and show them what "good" work examples are.

4. mshebbard - March 29, 2010 at 12:16 pm

These are excellent points and are very helpful for community colleges. What is good for the community college is also good for the university. Both types of institutions serve students and students need institutions that are ready to help them be successful. The student is the reason for being. It is about them, the people, not the institution.

5. mssmiley - March 29, 2010 at 03:27 pm

I fully agree with #4, universities can learn a few things from commnity colleges; after all, the bottom line is keeping students engaged and ultimately graduating. I strongly believe and have seen retention the retention rate at my university improve due to aggressive advising initiatives. We make the effort to visit prospective students and give them a vision for academic success. Advising is key to students persisting in any program; be it a two or four year program. Excellent article.

6. mckeer - March 29, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Over two decades ago I participated in a program at a community college that provided intensive academic advising by faculty for high risk students. The results overwhelmingly showed that this method of putting a face on the college that students could regularly count on for help and advice made a significant impact on higher retention and better grades.

7. tac3017874742 - March 30, 2010 at 09:39 am

Regarding comment #2, Community Colleges are not unique to the USA. Our largest trading partner, Canada, created many community colleges at the same time they were being established here in the USA.

I agree with the six suggestions given by the article we are commenting on and I have witnessed students who have thrived on the kinds of contact and engagement suggested. One of the really important issues is whether students are up to speed in mathematics and English reading/writing. Testing to place these underprepared students in remedial courses is essential to the future success of these college/university clients.

8. demery1 - March 31, 2010 at 11:12 am

I'd like to see the Chronicle examine the success and completion rates of community college students when they transfer to 4 year institutions. Do CC's do a good job preparing students for four year degrees at other institutions, or are students better prepared at 4 year institutions if theya ttend from the start?

I'd also like to see similar analysis about degree completion and persistence at for profit institutions.

9. umgrad - March 31, 2010 at 01:00 pm

I taught at community colleges for eight years and at a university for five. In general, the community colleges do a fine job preparing transfer students. However I attended a community college and transferred to a top ten public university (Michigan) and I was overwhelmed by the quality of the competition, and by the excruciatingly difficult tests administered by professors in order to challenge that level of student. Most community college students have never been exposed to the top foreign students, kids from elite private schools or kids from wealthy suburban schools , who have sophisticated academic and social skills due to their advantaged upbringing. In community colleges, most of us from lower to middle class backgrounds see others for the most part similar to ourselves. The jump from a community college to Um was much, much greater than the jump from high school to community college. Perhaps only those community colleges with "honors tracks" can truly prepare students for the rigors of elite universities.

10. laughin_otter - March 31, 2010 at 11:56 pm

All your postings are spot on. I would add a caveat, however, and that is: don't fall into the trap of fostering learned helplessness. Many community college students do have a plan to use the cc as a stepping stone to a 4-year school, and those students usually fare quite well because they are mentally prepared and motivated.
Others thought they would never see the inside of a classroom again. They hated school then, and they're not so sure they don't hate it now.
But one of the handicaps the weaker students have had foisted upon them--and this seems to get worse every year--is that in public school they were simply not encouraged to believe they could read, write, or think. Every public school has its rhetoric about success, of course, but rhetoric notwithstanding, much of the "help" they have gotten has been woefully misguided. "Here, dear, I know this example is hard. You only have to do the part you understand." "Don't worry, we don't want you to get out of your comfort zone, I'll hint at the answers so you can't miss." "You'll do fine, just take it slow."
All this handholding has resulted in the widespread phenomenon of learned helplessness. "Learning disability" has become a very useful code for refusal to learn anything new. At my most recent teaching job, every section had at least one student who presented him- or herself with a disclaimer that they hoped would excuse them from performing to their capacity. "Don't bother to help me with grammar, I have a learning disability and nine years of school hasn't helped me." (Need I add that that student was not on record at the school with any documented disability, learning or otherwise.) The list could go on.
I think the one that took the prize was a law student that I tutored while in graduate school. She utterly refused to understand what parts of speech had to do with writing intelligible sentences. Her official position was that she had a learning disability. Her backup position was that she believed if she wrote unreadable briefs she would have a better chance of winning the case. Puh-leeze! Don't ever give me your business card, lady!
It does go straight back to the mish-mash of pedagogies and fads that characterize public school education these days. School boards, parents, administrators, and many (not all) teachers are simply afraid to push students out of their comfort zone. Problem is, that's where the learning takes place.

11. laughin_otter - April 01, 2010 at 12:09 am

Oh, and by the way--community college departments absolutely must support faculty who push students more than the students like. The popularity contest that teaching has become has to go. I don't hear anyone challenging the practice of end-term student evaluations, but I came up in the days when such a thing did not exist, and I am not being an old fuddy-duddy when I say we were better off for it. The student evals were a concession made to defuse student resentment and rebellion in the 60's. If the department is collecting them simply as a formality, it's a fraud. If the department is poring over them with an eye to canning a faculty member who isn't winning the appropriate brownie points with students, it's worse than fraud.
My first semester teaching Freshman Comp (at my alma mater, no less), I had an eye-opening experience. I had coincidentally gathered student evaluations of my own in class, since I sincerely wanted the feedback. And since I intended to return them to the students, I had them sign their names. The department issued its own evals and student names were optional. The differences in responses to the two sets of evaluations were absolutely astonishing. The signed evals (addressed to me) seemed mature, generally fair, and carefully considered. The anonymous evals (addressed to the department) cut me to ribbons. Clearly, one set was a pack of lies.
Get rid of the student evaluations, they're worthless!

12. barbarahelen - April 04, 2010 at 09:36 am

I have taught at a high end private girls high school, a two year college and a private girls school that served mainly low to middle class Hispanic student.

At the 2 year college, students were closely monitored by their instructors. As a theatre instructor I kept closely in touch with the other faculty as to how my students were doing in their other classes. Faculty was strongly encouraged to stay on each student's case as far as success in all classes was concerned.

When I began my current job in a largely (80%) Hispanic private girls school, it was clear that faculty expectations for the girls was rather low. In the 6 years I have been there, that has been totally turned around; everyone graduates, everyone is accepted at colleges, and over two million in scholarships is offered to graduating seniors (usually around 60 students).

Once the students learned that teachers expected them to succeed, the entire atmosphere of the school turned around.

So, the goals of faculty exptectations and close communication between faculty and students are goals I have personally experienced.

13. gadget - April 07, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I plan to read the report. I admit I am frustrated with how to better serve my students. I am paid $20,000 a year, no benefits, no sick leave, don't have an office, and do three preps a semester to teach 4-5 classes. One of my colleagues in teaching English composition has just spent the first two thirds of the semester teaching grammar only, the state legislature is talking about cutting additional semesters out of ESL instruction which will send them to developmental English instead, and I am told we must take students in developmental English who scored as low as a zero on the Writeplacer (ESL won't take them because they scored so low). And the students face all the issues identified above and then some. So where do we start?

14. abfinke - April 10, 2010 at 02:47 pm

Could be worse. You could work at the kind of community college where the response to things like mailing progress reports to students reminding them when they are falling behind in classes is met with cries of, "Well, but... are those really the kind of students we WANT to encourage to come back?"

You know, the kind of place where people go, "Ha, man, boy those students sure do drop classes a lot. Isn't it funny when I start a class with 20 students and end with, like, 13?"

Guess I just had to vent... I really think the key, painful budget cuts or no, is that you HAVE to find good people (administrators, faculty, staff, whoever) who care about the students and are willing to try new things. If you've got some where you are, then start brainstorming. If not, start sending out those job applications.

15. abfinke - April 10, 2010 at 02:56 pm

I just realized that was pretty much a vent post and really probably not that helpful. So here's one thing that we do that is a good idea, and it's related to grammar and composition classes.

In addition to composition, we have a separate (but non-DEV, although it really is developmental-level - 95% of our students need to take it, so it became a 'can we really hold EVERYONE up from taking their regular classes for this?') class called Writing Lab that is entirely on grammar. It's pass-fail, it has no homework, and all it is is OVER AND OVER repetition of grammar skills.

You write a short paper - couple hundred words. You get the grammar marked on it. You correct it. Every day of class. The idea is to build up not just the knowledge of what you should do (that's also covered, but NEVER tested - if you can follow the rules but can't recite them, you still pass) - the goal is to actually turn it into a habit so students don't have to think about grammar so much as they get used to it. It seems to work pretty well - except that it's concurrent with composition right now, which means comp papers are still pretty bad until the end of the semester. But Writing Lab really does, with good instructors, work an incredible amount of the time - maybe 90-95% of students can pass after one semester, the rest after two. The difference in their writing between the beginning and the end of the semester is remarkable.

16. arrive2__net - April 13, 2010 at 04:26 am

It seems like one of the missions of community college is to help the students who finally got a wake-up call in their lives ... that getting a good education does matter. The article is right a lot of the adult students didn't like school, so they have to do some internal work to change that, as well as learn the actual course materials. So it stands to reason that outside help would make a difference and the cc is lucky when it is the source they look to. That's why cc gets paid. Retaining students, so they can get ahead, and in effect take their community with them is critical.

Bernard Schuster

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