• September 2, 2015

Community Colleges Must Focus on Quality of Learning, Report Says

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.

Mandatory Support

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.

Professional Development

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."


1. triumphus - November 11, 2010 at 05:49 am

So much to measure; so little time.

2. yinzerati - November 11, 2010 at 08:47 am

Community Colleges must hire more full-time faculty and/or pay those they have a living wage for the actual time it takes to teach the skills. They also need to stop playing their part-timers by pretending they have a contract for next year to avoid paying them unemployment. A disgraceful double standard showing a lack of critical thinking skills and poor argumentation.

3. bowenke - November 11, 2010 at 09:14 am

This data and information is interesting, but I would be very curious to see how it compares to the students at four-year institutions. For some of those figures, it sounds like a transition problem that many if not all students face and not necessarily just the burden of community colleges.

4. diehl - November 11, 2010 at 09:25 am

The colleges that have the highest graduation rates and some of the lowest tuition rates have invested in their full-time professors over the long run. They have few part-time, adjunct faculty members and most of their operating costs go to instruction. A high percentage of their total salary budget goes to full-time instructors and not to a highly paid administration. Their operating budget is heavy on instruction salaries and instructional support costs.

5. yinzerati - November 11, 2010 at 09:44 am

diehl thank you for that. Can you provide some references for it? I'd love to make this argument in an editorial.

6. 22235933 - November 11, 2010 at 10:36 am

How nice of someone to point out that organizations staffed with 60% part-time professionals need to do more of this and more of that to acheive what would likely be a challenge for fully invested, full-time employees. Our system is implementing a wide variety of assessment and capacity-building functions, straining the will and the fundamental time management skills of full-time instructors. We lowly adjuncts have yet to experience the new standard of accountability but it's difficult to see how one can expect systemic improvement if the majority of the instructors are not on board (or even being asked to join). Why would our system ignore us? They know for a fact that most adjuncts will simply ignore or actively subvert stronger accountability and assessment tools because they are not as strongly invested in the organization. We are used to being ignored and taken advantage of. But I ask, how can systemic issues be resolved if administrators and legislators continue to ignore the fact that community colleges are routinely comprised of 60% (or more) part-time faculty being paid less than a fry-cook at McDonald's?

7. bhay9341 - November 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

diehl, Could you name names? Please identify these institutions. Some of us would love to talk with them.

8. dank48 - November 11, 2010 at 01:37 pm

Is there anything here that couldn't also be said to be a good idea for four-year schools? Or is this just one more as-everyone-knows piece?

9. commserver - November 11, 2010 at 01:41 pm

Until recently I was adjunct at CC part of a large urban university system. The administration wasn't too good with student support systems. The faculty didn't have much expectations of the students. What was the worth of the degree? I wonder!!!

10. gent258 - November 11, 2010 at 04:15 pm

Community College administrations and faculty are at odds. The administrators are interested in quantity; the faculty are interested standards--quality. The two must get on the same page. It is not important to crank out thousands of graduates unless they are educated well in the liberal arts tradition. Community Collges have to be more than job training centers.

11. gent258 - November 11, 2010 at 04:20 pm

Community College administrations and faculty are at odds. The administrators are interested in quantity; the faculty are interested standards--quality. The two must get on the same page. It is not important to crank out thousands of graduates unless they are educated well in the liberal arts tradition. Community Collges have to be more than job training centers.

12. dank48 - November 11, 2010 at 04:39 pm

Again, what of the above is true of community colleges but not of four-year schools?

13. softshellcrab - November 11, 2010 at 05:58 pm

Our local community college is extremely spotty in its education. Basically the school lacks standards and measures its results in turning out students and associates degrees, and how much its enrollments are, but there is no quality control at all. Some of the teachers there who teach in my discipline are good, others are ridiculously poor, and the school really does not seem to care either way. It really should have only half or 1/3 the number of students it does.

14. nebo113 - November 12, 2010 at 10:41 am

Yup. Exactly what my CC is proposing. Higher grad rates = lower expectations. But it will make the Dean happy.

15. prof_truthteller - November 13, 2010 at 01:24 pm

Well this is what faculty at my college have been recommending for years. We either get no support from the administration, no funding, no management, direction, planning, encouragement, staff support or resources- or, the admin changes, and under new management, we get too much directive and intrusive demands for changes that are poorly thought out and serve only to satisfy the president's ego and desire to be right, even when wrong.

16. rargen - November 13, 2010 at 01:36 pm

Higher education cannot afford to pay for quality higher education that is why adjuncts were reinvented.

17. chalfhill - November 16, 2010 at 09:03 am

Rather than a comment on the report the discussion has turned into the familiar full time/adjunct arguments. Working at a community college and aware of the large number of part time students who work, are the completion statistics based on a 3 year time frame realistic? How far along have students progressed? Are they still attending? Should the survey include statistics (available in my state) as to the success rate of transfer students in our universities? Should local industry be surveyed to determine preparedness level of the career and technical students? Until the end result of the educational process (which is not graduation) is taken into consideration how can you truly evaluate?

18. anthrodocz - November 16, 2010 at 09:07 am

Imagine that! We don't need to just make sure that students somehow "succeed" (i.e. graduate within a magically prescribed number of years), nor just demonstrate that they have somehow been "engaged" while at our institutions, but we should also be able to talk about what they have learned, and how we know this! What an interesting idea. So, while all the big granting money and national attention is on "student success" ("Get them through the community colleges at a higher rate of completion") Who is actually supporting the front-line efforts to study "what do our students actually learn, and how do we know this?" ?? It seems that those among us who take this seriously are very much on our own, in the shadows of current waves of attention to "success" and "engagement" ....

19. debokey - November 16, 2010 at 11:05 am

Refusing to lower my standards got me chased out of a tenured cc position I held for 10 years when the VP of Student Services was named VP of Instruction even though she had never taught a full schedule of classes in her life. For five years, I had to live in one-room situations and even spent three weeks living in a Salvation Army. I finally was offer a full-time, tenure-track position this year, and I'm not risking my livelihood again by trying to force students who don't care to actually learn.

Yes, the problem lies with administration's goals to some degree, but it also lies in the declining interest students hold in learning. If we ask them to do more than the absolute minimum and hold them to any kind of reasonable standards at all, they drop the class, which reflects badly on US for some reason. They complain if they aren't dismissed from class early. In the report, they admit to spending less than two hours a week studying. We are judged by students based on how much fun we are.

I beg my students to email me or visit me in my office. I beg them to send me drafts of papers. I write everything they need to know in handouts, which take more time than they spend writing papers for my composition classes, and their papers clearly demonstrate they don't even bother to read the handouts.

But as one instructor commented, "We can't fail everyone." The Sesame-Street, social-promotion, entitled generation of students combined with the pressure to pass everyone from administration makes holding students to high standards not only difficult but dangerous. I know; I tried to ignore those pressures and starved for five years. Don't lecture instructors on the need to improve learning. We are aware of it. But we need to pay our bills, and we are not in charge of anything, no matter what kind of lip service is given to academic freedom.

Oh, and while I was starving, I worked on my PhD for a year. I was pressured to lower standards there, too, so at least in writing instruction, this situation is academy-wide.

20. amss14 - November 16, 2010 at 01:55 pm

These are some pretty disturbing comments! It is a shame that any of our educators, full or part time, are treated so shabbily.

In response to anthrodocz, check out the research initiative by eGlobe Research Community - www.egloberc.com. It addresses curriculum trends in higher education which gives us some insight into what is being taught. It's in the early stages so there are only a handful of disciplines currently being studied, but its worth taking a look as it hopefully will expand its studies to a large variety of disciplines. For educators I think it could also be used as a resource when working with administrators and others involved in making decisions around curriculum - being able to compare your curriculum might bring around some awareness with regards to quality and the need to understand and discuss what quality means and how it can be measured efficiently (not further weigh down the already heavy load of educators).

21. punkassninja - November 16, 2010 at 02:28 pm

I agree with all the comments on administrators wanting more done with less, wanting us to lower standards and create "Learning Outcomes" as if I can control what my students learn, etc. This is rampant and is turning people off from teaching. I love my discipline but feel more and more unappreciated each year. I have high standards and somehow the student's lack of interest, preparation and basic manners is my fault. I used to feel bad about it, but now I just disengage and get by. It's a sad and sorry state, but as the person said above, you don't pay your bills and eat by being idealistic. You keep your job by making administrators happy, even if they haven't taught a day in their life.

22. arnlang - November 16, 2010 at 05:20 pm

The STUDENTS say that "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."

Excuse me, but how would they know? 60% of my students, if asked to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their own views, don't bother because the surrounding culture has assured them that they have "a right to my opinion" and that therefore that opinion is right. If I ask them to analyze something, they want to know how many words, how many sentences, how many pages, and what should they write? This is the result of judging by easily measurable standards like percent of graduation and profit (as so many of you have said).

23. cheaptrick - November 16, 2010 at 08:11 pm

Expecting students to devote many hours outside of class is not realistic at my institution because the majority are working 30+ hours per week and a significant percentage are working two jobs. Even the most capable student will admit that he or she could do A work, but doesn't have the time. Unfortunately, students often enroll in more classes than they can manage because it's the only way they can receive financial aid; and without financial aid, they wouldn't be in school. In a way, they are being penalized for trying to devote more time to their studies. For one-quarter of the students in my classes, 9-credit semesters in the first year could give them success and increase their self-confidence, but only if they had help with tuition. They would not graduate in 3 years, but when they did graduate, their preparation would be stellar.

24. retired61 - November 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Why does the issue of admittedly exploitive part-time faculty salaries work its way into virtually every discussion of the attainment of community college students? Read Sloan. In rhw 18rh century and well into the 19th, the college president might get an actual salary (although the trustees still expected his wife to prepare all meals for the 25 students, 5 tutors, the president and grounds workers), But pay for the tutors (there were, apart from the president, typically no professors) was never certain, even though they needed that pay to go back to a Yale or Princeton. Why a few thousand students, tutors, the rare professor, and presidents and their wives put up with this awful system well into the 1870a escapes me, but just possibly today's adjunct faculty had the same hope in formal education's cultural and economic powers as animated the 18th century tutors Just possibly things have not changed all that much). Our national policy of universal access makes for good press at the national, state and local levels (I know, as I wrote some of the speeches). But since 1973, building on Knowles and Cohen, voters have come to expect access, regardless of preparation, interest in learning by their chilren and space in the program THEY want. The result has been too many students, most with unrealistic expectations (we simply can't absorb that many brain surgeons) seeking entrance to programs with fixed entrollment limits, and thus no roon. Vaughan has done a great job documenting the consequences of this white lie). The temporary solution (and it was honestly meant to be temporary) became the norm as those on society's economic and social margins honestly believed that a commuunity college or proximate state unuiversity would help them achieve their dream to enter the mainstream of American life.
To be blunt, the problems that plague temporary faculty are nothing more than collatoral damage in what result's from society's unwilling to make good on its promise. Further, this is not the first promise my generation has broken and, sadly, far from the last.
Part time faculty need to either learn from their much more aggressive French counterparts. Or they can just suck it up and move on. It's their choice.

25. tashana - November 17, 2010 at 03:44 pm

My husband attends Columbus State (Columbus, OH) and he has more than enough to say about the instructors who teach the engineering and math courses. He is constantly frustrated with the nonchalant manner in which most of his instructors approach teaching the objectives. He complained earlier in one of his courses that whenever he asked the instructor a question, the instructor would invariably say 'he didn't know' and then make jokes about getting paid $40 per hour regardless if the students passed or not. How abismal is that?

Columbus State Community College on the surface appears to be a great school. However, as I work with community leaders who are working to develop programs for inner city youth, I am told that a grave deal of employers have no real regard from a degree from the college. This is even more tramatic.

The purpose of attending community college, short from decreased cost, is smaller more cohesive classroom learning environments. And to think that there are employers who have employed graduates from the college then later came to regret their choice, is simply sad.

As someone who takes education very seriously, I have tried several times to get on staff as adjunct faculty; I don't even get a phone call or a note saying my credentials have been received. And yet, instructors like the ones thrusted upon my spouse, are there making their money while adult students spend money only to graduate with nothing but more debt and little hope of a real career.

How can this be stopped? How do these colleges work to ensure that their instructors are in fact not just showing up, but that they are working with students, helping them develop critical thinking skills needed in the workplace? This is when community colleges will begin to rival 4 year universities on an academic content level. But for right now, at least in my experience with CC, that idea is nonexistent.

26. joanb195 - November 17, 2010 at 04:01 pm

Adjuncts are treated poorly and make hardly anything so what's the incentive there? Obviously, the cc's don't think very much of their "worth." It's the bottom-line philosopy. Students think it's their right to attend school. Recently, I was at the college bookstore, and there was a young lady in front of me who was buying all kinds of non-academic goods. She told me that she was given an dollar amount she could use at the bookstore. It didn't matter what she bought.

Students are not respectful. I'm talking about adults. There needs to be a dress code; no pants hangin below the waist!

27. retired61 - November 19, 2010 at 02:06 am

The abuse of faculty, full and part-time, has characterized American high education with the exception of a brief "golden age" after WWII. The reasons for this history of abuse are basically two, and complaining about a student in a bookstore or an idiot vice president won't change a thing. Prof. Cremin told us, from his lofty, tenured heights, that one basic rule in America is simple: if we identify a social problem involving adults, politicians simply punt it over to "their" higher education to fix it -- of course without any additional funding. If Marx is right, at some point this practice should result in conflict, with able teachers no longer willing to work for the pay offered. Taking Marx to the next step, this clash should pit a conflicted group of administrators against state politicans. While this ought to, and very well may, result in victory for the part-time faculty instigators, we need to remember that this is America, not Germany, and we appear to worship Palin and nearly elected a chaste witch to the Senate. At least for the first few years, my money is on the current crop of no-nothing tea partiers, but economic truths eventually win out.
Add to America's brilliant fragmentation of part-timers as a force on campus is its absolutely dumb failure to adopt some form of English-style "out" exam. The comments by most in this string have tossed about the word "standards" a great deal, but with respect to the American BA and AA, there simply are no generally accepted standards separating the able from the dullard student. Imagine if such a system had been in place when Bush II was picking up towels for the Yale baseball team, and assume that Yale had two or three equally gifted Cabot's and Lodge's in Bush's class. I would bet that a few of the smaller communty colleges of the time would have given Yale a run for its money.
What to do besides gripe? I've negotiated with union and non-union part-timers. The whole "professionalism" argument has never paid the rent, regardless of the profession (in the 1990's, nurses refused to unionize. Look at the data. Controlled for inflation, their salaries were flat even as working conditions deteriorated. It took at few strikes at major hospitals, but you can now honestly recommend that a student consider this profession.) Stop complaining and work with the NEA or AFT to get those union cards signed and force a vote. (One important trick is to limit membership to those who teach an average of at least 5 credit hours a semester. This cuts out the 1-class business and nursing faculty who simply don't need the money but want the prestige.) A model might be the part-time union at Wayne County CC in Michigan. But the much-abused adjuct faculty of today need to stop constant complaints and, realizing that each is absolutely critical to a college meeting both its enrollment AND fiscal goals, make use of this very real power.

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