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Giving College a Welcoming Front Door

Maria-Moten-2014 (3)If the enrollment process at a community college isn’t well structured, new students are left to fend for themselves and might not know which options match their goals. In a guest post, Maria S. Moten explains how her college improved its “new-student flow.” Ms. Moten, assistant provost and dean of enrollment services at Harper College, a two-year institution in Illinois, is scheduled to present on this topic at the annual meeting this week of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The sequence of steps that an incoming student must complete in order to enroll in courses at Harper College is known as our “new-student flow.” Research suggests that the lack of structure in how community colleges first enroll students may cause barriers that confuse and overwhelm them.

As the researcher Judith Scott-Clayton so aptly put it, by creating many options and opportunities for new students as they enter, we may be unintentionally sending them down a “shapeless river” that we expect them to understand and navigate. That could leave students to make poorly informed decisions about whether and how to persist toward a credential.

With that in mind, Harper changed its student flow. The changes were based on the Pathway Principles taken from Completion by Design, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion rates for low-income students under age 26. By adding structure and simplifying enrollment steps, we hope to have a positive impact on success and completion rates. To that end, Harper is in the process of launching “Project Discover,” an integrated student-success system that will enhance advising, academic planning, and career preparation.

The goal is clear: Tailor new-student processes based on students’ program of study and present them with options appropriate to their educational plans. But achieving it isn’t easy. Because the processes in question have been delivered by multiple departments on the campus (recruitment and outreach, admissions and testing, orientation, and the registrar’s office), far more dialogue and collaboration were needed than was initially anticipated.

Existing processes and procedures weren’t poor or faulty. But everyone involved acknowledged they weren’t as student-centered or as individualized as they could be. The new-student flow now moves students through key processes in a more personalized manner. That was accomplished through policy changes, process and space improvements, and job restructuring and training.

Major components of the redesign included:

  • Developing admission category changes. By differentiating between degree-seeking, certificate-seeking, and non-degree-seeking students, we are in a better position to respond to students’ needs.
  • Defining each step in the new-student flow. Through the creation of targeted messages and personalized checklists for students, we provided students with simplified access to information about their “next steps” from admission through registration.
  • Revising our existing placement-testing policy. By including all degree-seekers in the mandatory assessment of English, reading, and mathematics skills, we were able to more deliberately help the often-underserved part-time students as they entered college. That expansion allowed us to examine the importance of mandatory enrollment in development courses. Students who cannot demonstrate college-level readiness are now required to enroll in the appropriate developmental course(s) during their first semester—and each semester thereafter—until they complete all the sequences of developmental-level work.
  • Redefining new-student orientation and advising pathways based on students’ intended goals. More-detailed educational planning is provided to be more prescriptive with students about “goal planning to completion.” Students who enter undecided about their career plans receive more support immediately upon entry.
  • Carrying out targeted initiatives designed to increase the number of students completing degrees and certificates. Harper has set a goal of producing 10,604 additional graduates by 2020 (which represents about a 5-percent increase in the number of graduates each year) to support President Obama’s challenge to community colleges to produce five million more completions. In order to achieve that goal, we’ve developed more-cohesive messages to students across the entire institution about the importance of degree or certificate completion. The notion of “finish what you start” is a theme introduced to students immediately in orientation, and it’s punctuated throughout the Harper experience. However, a communication plan alone can’t make that happen. More help was needed in the registrar’s office, so an additional position was created to identify students who had nearly completed a degree or certificate but needed more support in the form of advising, degree audits, or information about services.

We continue to refine and improve the new-student flow. The goal is clear: Deliberately provide support for all students as they enter and continue that support until graduation.

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