Increasing college completion is meaningless unless certificates and degrees represent real learning, which community colleges must work harder to ensure, says a report released on Thursday by the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
While national education goals prioritize attainment, community colleges must focus on quality, says the annual report, which is based on focus groups and data from three surveys: the 2010 Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the 2010 Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, and the 2009 Survey of Entering Student Engagement, which polled students in their first few weeks of enrollment last fall.
This year's report, "The Heart of Student Success: Teaching, Learning, and College Completion," centers on "deep learning," or "broadly applicable thinking, reasoning, and judgment skills—abilities that allow individuals to apply information, develop a coherent world view, and interact in more meaningful ways." By some measures, students are doing well.
Over all, 67 percent of community-college students said their coursework often involved analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory; 59 percent said they frequently synthesized ideas, information, and experiences in new ways. Other averages were lower: 56 percent of students, for example, reported being regularly asked to examine the strengths or weaknesses of their own views on a topic. And just 52 percent of students said they often had to make judgments about the value or soundness of information as part of their academic work.
One problem may be low expectations, says Kay M. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. And the national push for attainment could drive those expectations down further, she says, citing a remark she worries about hearing on campuses: "Well, sure, we know how to retain students and help them complete. We just lower our standards."
According to the report, 37 percent of full-time community-college students spent five or fewer hours a week preparing for class. Nineteen percent of students had never done two or more drafts of an assignment, and 69 percent had come to class unprepared at least once.
And yet almost three-quarters of students and two-thirds of faculty members said their college encouraged students to spend significant amounts of time studying. The discrepancy there suggests that colleges should pay more attention to "how expectations for performance are expressed and enforced," the report says.
Strong relationships with faculty members can help students along, the report says, but those bonds may not develop fully enough. Nearly nine in 10 entering students said they knew how to get in touch with their instructors outside of class, and the same proportion reported that at least one instructor had learned their names. But more than two-thirds of entering students and almost half of more-seasoned students said they had never discussed ideas from their coursework with instructors outside of class.
Community-college students also do not use support services to the extent they may need to, the report says. Nineteen percent of entering students were unaware that their college had an orientation program, and 26 percent didn't know about financial-aid advising, according to the report. Seventy percent were familiar with writing, math, or other skill labs, and 72 percent knew about academic advising, but 65 percent and 47 percent, respectively, never used those services.
Many of those students drop out of college. According to the report, only 28 percent of first-time, full-time students seeking an associate degree finished a certificate or a degree within three years. After six years, still fewer than half (45 percent) of students who enrolled in community college to earn a certificate or degree had met that goal.
Existing support services that could help may be or seem to be inaccessible to students who often work jobs and care for dependents, Ms. McClenney says. "Good intentions aren't going to get us anywhere," she says, "not with that student population."
The report strongly encourages colleges to incorporate support services into courses or otherwise require them. Students who take success courses, for example, reported significant benefits: 69 percent said the courses helped them develop skills to become better students, and 60 percent said the courses helped them improve their study skills.
Community colleges should consider making such courses mandatory, the report says, citing the case of Houston Community College, which phased in the requirement over time.
The prospect of adding or expanding services often raises concerns about cost, but that shouldn't be a barrier, Ms. McClenney says: "The real issue isn't the level of resources that you have. It's how you use the resources." Administrators should ask themselves, she says, "Where's the place we could put limited resources to have the biggest impact on the largest possible number of students?"
The Community College Survey of Student Engagement, known as Cessie, combines survey responses from the past three years, from 400,000 students at 658 institutions in 47 states, three Canadian provinces, and the Marshall Islands. Participating institutions' individual annual results are published online by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which is based at the University of Texas at Austin. The entering-student survey, known as Sense, incorporates 50,000 responses from 120 colleges in 30 states; it is now being administered for the second time.
This year's report also strongly recommends that colleges invest more in professional development, for part-time as well as full-time faculty. "The calls for increased college completion come at a time of increasing student enrollments and draconian budget cuts; and too often in those circumstances, efforts to develop faculty and staff take low priority," wrote John E. Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program, also based at Austin, in the foreword to the report.
Among many campus efforts the report identifies as promising, it highlights Lone Star College's Classroom Research Initiative, a form of professional development based on inquiry. Since last year, about 30 faculty members from the community college's five campuses have collaborated to examine assessment data from the report's surveys and other sources and to propose new ways to try to improve learning.
"What we've been able to do in the project is narrow it down to a course-by-course application," says Linda W. Crow, a professor of biology at Lone Star's Montgomery campus. There instructors have incorporated student-response systems like clickers; at the Tomball campus, the mathematics faculty has made structural changes to remedial courses.
Next year, Cessie will focus on high-impact practices such as supplemental instruction and required academic planning, Ms. McClenney says, to explore their effects on student engagement and persistence. The survey will also examine who runs such programs and what training and professional development they have. More than 400 colleges have registered for the survey, compared with a previous annual high of 313.
"It's going to provide a lot of data and information," she says, "that the community college field doesn't have."