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A matter of degrees

A new College of Education report offers research-based strategies to boost community college student retention and engagement

April 26, 2012

A Chinese proverb teaches that “One step at a time is good walking.”

With something close to that in mind, community college leaders are looking for those important, high-impact steps that will help them best manage record-high student enrollments — and shrinking budgets.

Kay McClenney
Dr. Kay McClenney

To help the colleges with these challenges and offer some focus, The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) has produced “A Matter of Degrees.” It’s the first in what will be a series of research-based reports describing 13 promising practices that community colleges can use to increase student engagement and completion rates.

“Community colleges have always tried to be everything to everyone, being praised and criticized in equal measure for their open admissions policy,” says Kay McClenney, CCCSE director and senior lecturer in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration.

“With around 8 million students enrolled nationwide right now — and it’s a student population that defies generalization — as well as historically lean budgets, they’re being faced with some very tough decisions about whom to serve and how best to do that.”

Pockets of excellence exist nationwide, McClenney says. But the trick is to bring their high-impact practices to a larger scale and consistently implement them on more community college campuses.

“Community colleges students constitute roughly 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, so the success or failure of their students has a significant impact on the economy, not to mention individuals’ lives,” she says. “Right now, fewer than half of community college students are earning an associate degree or certificate. “

To help community colleges focus on the policies and practices that are most likely to boost student achievement, the Center analyzed qualitative and quantitative data from four very detailed national surveys. The Survey of Entering Student Engagement, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement and the Community College Institutional Survey were designed to reveal information on different aspects of the community college student experience. They include responses from thousands of entering students, experienced students, faculty members and institution administrators. Used together, the survey data give colleges a more holistic understanding of student engagement on their campuses.

“To organize the promising practices, we divided them into three categories,” says McClenney. “We addressed practices that optimize students’ very first interactions with a college, what needs to be done to help students through their first year, and then what strategies will help them stay the course until they reach the finish line. Right now the buzzwords are ‘retention’ and ‘completion.’ ”

One of the most surprising and potentially useful findings was what some college administrators refer to as the “make it mandatory rule.”

“The center provides community colleges with powerful data demonstrating how critical mandatory policies are for student success,” says Stephanie Hawley, associate vice president for College Access Programs at Austin Community College. “Their research is helping community colleges to create more supportive environments through the use of mandatory policies.”

Now Austin Community College requires orientation (as The University of Texas at Austin also is doing starting this year), which boosts student success, according to CCSSE data. ACC also requires students who need two or more remedial courses to meet with a counselor who offers what Hawley describes as proactive, “holistic” support. Additionally, the college eliminated late registration for students who are starting college for the first time, another policy that makes a big difference when it comes to retaining students.

“Something like late registration may seem innocuous, like a small detail, but makes an enormous difference,” says John Roueche, director of the College of Education’s Community College Leadership Program, which produces more community college leaders than any other similar program in the nation.

“The students need to be in the classrooms in their seats on the first day of class. Important things are shared on that first day, and data show that the ones who miss the first few days or first week often are those who need guidance and instruction the most. Many register late, never catch up and end up dropping out that first semester.”

According to the Center’s report, a strong start is critical to students’ long-term academic success, especially for those who are first-generation college students or who come from high schools that offer little or no college preparation and guidance.

Characteristics of Community College Students

  • 41 percent attend college full-time
  • 19 percent of full-time and 42 percent of part-time students work more than 30 hours a week
  • 29 percent of full-time and 37 percent of part-time students care for dependents 11 or more hours a week
  • 56 percent who took placement tests needed developmental education in at least one area
  • 57 percent plan to complete a certificate program
  • 79 percent plan to obtain an associate degree
  • 73 percent want to transfer to a four-year college or university
  • 45 percent earn a degree or certificate within six years after beginning college

From “A Matter of Degrees”

Data from past surveys indicate that a big part of that strong start during students’ first year on campus comes from building relationships and not remaining isolated.

“We’ve found that first-year experience programs are really effective at engaging students,” says McClenney, whose findings are similar to those that the university’s Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates issued about students at four-year colleges.

“These programs are specifically designed to help students connect with peers, college support services and faculty. About 27 percent of colleges report that they make participation in these mandatory. Data show that being part of programs like this improves students’ time management skills, makes it more likely that they’ll access the college’s academic support network and that they’ll use the wealth of social support services that most colleges have.”

Student success courses also are recommended and deliver many of the same benefits as first-year-experience programs. They teach students basic study and planning skills that have been shown to be very beneficial and that students also can use at a four-year university. Those who complete these classes early on are more likely to continue in school, earn better grades, have higher overall GPAs and get a degree or certification.

“Learning communities are another way that community colleges can bring students more fully into the learning experience and make it less likely that they’ll drop out,” says McClenney. “These usually involve a group of students who take two or more linked classes together as a cohort, with the instructors coordinating course outlines and assignments and jointly reviewing students’ progress.”

In addition to connecting with others and accessing the valuable support resources that are available, McClenney says that taking remedial education courses immediately rather than later in a student’s academic career tends to result in improved academic outcomes and student retention.

There have been so many benefits to choosing a community college — wonderful student services and resources, smaller classes and campuses, extremely attentive faculty and admissions staff, and very challenging lessons. Being challenged is so important to me and I feel like, with the education I’m receiving, I’ve been taught how to think both critically and conceptually. I’m definitely committed to finishing this academic journey I’ve started.

— Cynthia Spradlin
Austin Community College student

Past research in the field of education has shown that students also seem more likely to stay in school if their college offers accelerated developmental courses that allow them to quickly take care of remediation and move on to college-level courses as soon as possible.

Nationally, approximately 72 percent of students who took placement tests reported that they needed developmental education classes. Research has shown that students who complete their developmental courses in the first or second semester of school are more likely to persevere.

“When it comes to keeping students in school past that first year, research confirms that success is associated with the extent to which students are engaged in active and collaborative learning and in interactions with faculty,” says McClenney. “It’s also important for faculty to alert struggling students to academic difficulties as soon as they arise and to help them receive rapid intervention.”

Because research shows that regular class attendance is an important element in college academic performance, faculty members were asked about their attendance policies and whether there are adverse effects linked to missing class. Around 78 percent of faculty members reported that attendance is tied to a student’s participation score or grade.

“At community colleges, we’ve always been very focused on having excellent student support services and trying to ensure that students have access to tutoring labs and the library,” says Hawley. “We sometimes forget just how much time students spend with faculty and in a class. Committed, caring and well-prepared faculty members are the key to a successful community college experience, and the classroom is often where students develop lifelong relationships with faculty and peers. Research tells us the more relationships a student has with college staff and peers, the more likely he is to persist to his goals.”

With the recent escalation in community college student enrollment and with state and federal funding for higher education unlikely to increase in the near future, McClenney and her team hope that “A Matter of Degrees” will be just the tool that community colleges need to remain accessible and affordable without sacrificing excellence.

“I love the work we do at community colleges. We get to support students who dream of making better lives for themselves,” says Hawley. “Keeping our doors wide open and providing all of our students with excellent and engaging learning experiences ensures the success of individuals, families, communities and, ultimately, our society.”

For more information, contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512 471 6033;
Photo of Kay McClenney: Christina Murrey

3 Comments to "A new College of Education report offers research-based strategies to boost community college student retention and engagement"

1.  Cindy Maciel-Reyes said on April 30, 2012

Dr. McClenney,

Kudos for the insightful report…hits the mark! In spite of dangling threats to decrease federal and state higher education funding, community college is usually the only option for students of color. Keep up the incredible work!

2.  Bill said on May 2, 2012

Considering that about half of all US Undergraduates are attending Community Colleges, it is very important that the CC’s do a good job! This article brings to light how important such research is in an area that gets little attention.

3.  Joel said on May 10, 2012

Some parts that really stuck out to me from this article was when McClenney was quoted as saying, “Community colleges students constitute roughly 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, so the success or failure of their students has a significant impact on the economy, not to mention individuals’ lives,” she says. There was a study that Colorado just had completed on the economic impact of it’s community colleges on the local economy. At the end of the study the results showed that Colorado Community Colleges produced $3.01 billion dollars of impact on the local economy. They also found that this impact was equal to 56,000 jobs being created in the Colorado job market. Until I ran across this information I actually thought that community colleges were a drain on the system costing taxpayers money. Ms. McClenney’s further statements on the extremely low numbers of students earning degrees are disheartening. There is an interesting report put out by the Aspen Institute that shows community colleges that are successfully graduating students at high rates and innovating their teaching strategies and approach to students. This article has a lot of useful statistics in it and we’ll be using this next month.