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No Average Student: Community college students not your 'typical' undergrads, says College of Education survey

Say you’re writing a television script for a soulful yet edgy, profound but flirtatious, new primetime youth drama on the WB, and one of your characters needs to be “the typical college student.” What is that character going to be like?

You might be tempted to make him, or her, around 19 or 20 and have him, or her, living in a dorm or seriously adorable apartment near campus. He, or she, will be taking a full class load, and, when not in French Lit or Human Sexuality 101, will be enjoying a, shall we say, healthy social life. He, or she, won’t be married (who would watch?) and won’t need to work. It’s not important to explain where all the money comes from. And he, or she, definitely will graduate. Probably during sweeps month.

Kay McClenney
Dr. Kay McClenney

That is a pretty good description of an “average” college student…if the show is set in 1978.

According to results of an influential national survey administered annually by The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, the times, they are a-changin. Describing your “average” student these days is tougher than a TV writer might suspect.

Data from the 2005 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) shows that a student at a U.S. institution of higher education is almost as likely to be in her 30s, taking care of dependents and working full-time as she is to be 19, in a sorority, getting financial assistance from the parental unit and taking 15 credit hours a semester.

“The CCSSE is operated by our Community College Leadership Program, and we’ve been conducting the survey for four years now,” says Dr. Kay McClenney, CCSSE director.“With around 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduate college students attending community colleges, we are getting an incredibly detailed portrait of ‘how the other half lives.’”

Fashioned after the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which polls students at four-year colleges and universities (including The University of Texas at Austin) the CCSSE elicited feedback this year from almost 140,000 students at 257 community colleges in 38 states. Students reported back, for instance, on how often they study and write papers, the amount of time they interact with other students and with faculty, how difficult they find their coursework and the kinds of support they get at their colleges.

To view video segments and hear stories from community college students who are challenging the odds, visit “Student Voices on Student Engagement” at the Community College Survey of Student Engagement Web site.

Using student responses, McClenney and a team of analysts in the Department of Educational Administration created a remarkably thorough report that describes the degree to which students are “engaged” in their educational experience.

“Research repeatedly has shown that in undergraduate education there is a positive correlation between how actively engaged students are—with faculty, other students and the subject matter—and their academic success,” says McClenney, “An engaged student, for example, may meet with advisers to discuss career plans, work on projects with other students outside of class, spend a number of hours rewriting and perfecting a research paper and regularly ask questions in class.

“CCSSE data have proven to be very valuable to community college leaders in that they get a wealth of information on the student body, can evaluate the efficacy of their educational practices, regroup if they wish and alter what doesn’t seem to be working.”

One of the most provocative messages to emerge from this year’s CCSSE report is that “high-risk” community college students are coming to class better-prepared than their peers, interacting more frequently with instructors and accessing helpful support services more often. But, ironically, they are enjoying less academic success.

“When we talk about ‘high-risk,’” says McClenney, “we mean groups of students who are statistically at risk of not completing a degree—for example, first-generation college students, those who do not enter college directly out of high school, the academically under-prepared, students who are low-income, students of color, those who may work more than 30 hours a week and non-traditional age learners.

The 'traditional' age for college students is 18 to 22 years old. What percentage of community college students are 25 years or older? A. Nearly one-quarter B. About half C. Three-quarters D. All Answer: B. 46 percent of community college students are at least 25 years old. Source: AACC, National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends & Statistics, 3rd edition.“These are students who come to college with multiple challenges in the way of financial, academic, personal and work-related issues, and they typically have to labor much harder to complete their education. The odds many of them face leave them expending more effort in school but achieving lower results.”

Although a significant number of high-risk students report habits that meet the definition of “engaged,” survey results show that many of them do not anticipate actually graduating, and related research shows that they tend to get lower grades and drop out more frequently than their low-risk peers.

To McClenney, these findings are not exactly shocking or counterintuitive. After all, only around one-half of all community college students return to school for a second year of study. With challenges that include children to raise, multiple jobs, limited financial resources and long commutes, high-risk students’ dropout rates are, inevitably, even higher.

If you are a community college president, this kind of feedback might seem like pretty good incentive to investigate other career options. McClenney is quick to point out, however, that if one can identify a problem, one has a better chance of correcting it.

In the case of the CCSSE report that is sent to participating colleges each year, detailed survey data describe challenges to student success, but, at the same time, analysts also suggest a host of viable solutions and interventions for college leaders.

“Saying that community colleges are just a variation on four-year universities is like saying a Longhorn is an armadillo,” says McClenney. “They’re just different animals. Community colleges are a uniquely American invention with a strong commitment to open admissions. Therefore, of course, they serve a disproportionately high number of students who bring this array of challenges to college with them.”

In contrast to four-year universities, community colleges provide more academic support in the form of tutoring, developmental education classes, writing centers, computer labs and English-as-a-second-language courses. They may be serving as many, or more, students who are taking noncredit workforce-development courses as they are credit students who plan to transfer to a four-year university or get an associates degree. And, of course, while they work to keep tuition affordable, they have the resource constraints that face all institutions of higher education.

Community college students
Community college students make up almost half of all
undergraduate students at U.S. public universities. At institutions like Austin Community College, the student body may range in age from learners in their 60s to moms in their 30s and 18-year-olds who are entering college straight out of high school.

“If a college leader can take CSSE results,” says McClenney, “and discover, for example, that his students are not getting the tutoring they need because most of them are not even aware of where the tutoring takes place and can’t show up for help at 3:00 in the afternoon anyway, then he can look at ways to change that.

“All evidence indicates that community college leaders are incredibly eager to help their students succeed. The challenge is that many of those students are 30-year-olds dashing over to campus from work to take a computer programming class or get certified as a medical technician, as well as 19-year-olds who have time to join student clubs and organizations and want to savor the entire ‘collegiate’ experience.”

This year, in addition to amassing a wealth of information about students’ college experiences, the Community College Leadership Program also gathered a valuable cache of faculty data with administration of the first-ever Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (CCFSSE). Queries of faculty were in somewhat the same vein as those posed to students and included questions about how faculty spend their professional time, in and out of class, their teaching practices and their perceptions of students’ educational experiences.

One of the more interesting findings was that, when it came to descriptions of students’ experiences, faculty and students’ responses diverged. A significant number of the 3,561 faculty survey respondents perceived higher levels of student engagement than the students reported. This held true whether faculty were calculating the number of course-related e-mails they received from students, estimating the amount of time devoted to discussions about grades or describing interactions with students during non-coursework activities.

The only area in which faculty members reported lower levels of student engagement was student effort. Faculty were more likely than students to perceive that students were coming to class unprepared, skipping class and not producing multiple drafts of papers before turning them in.

What percentage of community college students report that neither of their parents has attended a postsecondary education institution? A. One-quarter B. One-half C. Three-quarters D. All Answer: B. 52 percent of community college students are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Source: AACC, National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends & Statistics, 3rd edition.“When one begins to compare, point for point, student and faculty responses, it needs to be with a few caveats,” says McClenney. “Students report their own experiences during the current school year, while a faculty member is describing her practices and observations in a specific course. Faculty members also offer their general impressions of student engagement throughout the college.”

Unlike the NSSE, the CCSSE discloses all survey results, maintaining an ethic of  “transparency” that has not daunted most college administrators or sent them scrambling for the hills when the survey appears in the mailbox. The thoroughness, uniqueness and accessibility of the CCSSE’s data have, in fact, made it popular not only with college leaders but also with major national media such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Washington Post.

At the award-winning Community College Survey of Student Engagement Web site, a goldmine of information is available to most anyone who can click a mouse. If you visit the site and select “Survey Results” and then “College Profiles,” survey responses from all 257 colleges that participated in 2005 are right at hand and can be sorted by state. The site also includes, among other things, video clips of community college students, a quiz that tests your community college IQ, results of every survey since 2002, college profiles, CCSSE bulletins and publications and a summary of key survey findings.

“Community college enrollment is exploding,” says McClenney, “and we hope that the CCSSE is helping college leaders stay abreast of student needs. These colleges receive more respect now, I think, than ever before and in some ways can serve as models of superior ‘education-delivery’ to four-year universities.”

Meanwhile down in the trenches, Omar, a 27-year-old student at Austin Community College, is getting ready to wrap up his first semester. With a grueling batch of “remedial” courses meant to strengthen his writing and reading comprehension skills, it’s been a tough haul this fall, especially because he doesn’t have a computer at home. Even though his parents are helping him pay for tuition and books—after all, this is the first kid in the family to head to college—Omar works at least 30 hours most weeks for a residential moving service just to make ends meet.

When Isabel, his sometimes-fiancée, wants to talk about getting married next year, he tries to change the subject. After all, it’s already looking like he’ll have to skip taking classes in the spring so he can get another job, one that pays a little more and batters his back a little less. Omar feels that, at this rate, he’ll never knock out the two years of coursework it will take in order for him to transfer to The University of Texas at Austin and get started on a business degree. He doesn’t like to bellyache, though. After all, as his dad likes to say to anybody who’ll listen, “This kid of mine is just your average college student.”

BY Kay Randall

PHOTOS of Dr. McClenney and community college students: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 5 December 2005
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