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Leadership Insights

Achieving Student Success: Community Colleges to Learn From

By Nicole Mace, MEd September 28, 2018

When looking at successful higher education institutions, we often focus on well-known, four-year universities, but analyzing what makes specific community colleges successful can teach us a great deal about how to support and engage today’s students. There are more than 20 million working adults who are college dropouts in the U.S. and community colleges enroll 40% of all undergraduates, about six million degree-seeking students. These public institutions work with students who come from a variety of backgrounds, and when their needs and challenges are effectively addressed, great results are seen.

Challenges many community college students face

Community college students are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds, the first in their family to attend college, and from racial or ethnic minorities. Many are non-traditional students who are adults, parents, and work part-time or full-time while taking college classes.

According to Columbia’s Community College Research Center:

  • 44% of low-income students (those whose families earn less than $25,000 per year) attend community college after high school while only 15% of high-income students attend after high school.
  • For students whose parents did not graduate from college, 38% of them choose community colleges as their first institution, compared with 20% of students whose parents did graduate from college.
  • Approximately 33% of community college students have family incomes of less than $20,000.
  • 69% of community college students work while attending college and 33% work 35 hours or more each week.

Many community college students lack the resources needed to be successful. Therefore, our community colleges must be able to provide a great deal of support. Students should have access to a strong network of faculty and staff who understand their backgrounds and needs and can help them every step of the way.

Defining community college success

Defining success for community colleges has long been debated. In the late 1980s, nationally tracked graduation rates showed an underwhelming rate of student success for community colleges with less than a 20% graduation rate. But in 2008, Congress instructed the Department of Education to conduct a study on the accuracy of these rates. Eight years later, the committee assigned to this study decided that they should take a closer look at how community college graduation rates were being calculated.

New data from the study suggested that community colleges had a much higher rate of student success than previously thought. The old graduation rate metrics only took into account first-time students with a full load of credits. That measurement captures such a small sample of an institution’s entire student body.

In addition to the small sample size, the measurement of student success was only based on the completion of an associates degree within three years. However, a large number of community college students are non-traditional students (adults, parents, people with full-time jobs, people who are returning to school after a long academic break). These students often enroll part-time and therefore take longer than three years to graduate.

Following the committee’s advice, the Department of Education officials made changes, and now they include part-time and returning students, as well as the rate of transfers to four-year universities. The newly calculated results displayed community colleges achieving much higher student success across the nation. So what are these two-year institutions doing to successfully engage a more complex student demographic? What programs or methods are producing more career-ready or transfer-ready students?  Let’s take a closer look at a few examples.

Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, FL

Broward College is leading the way in reaching a diverse student population. Over 66% of its 60,000+ students consist of underrepresented minorities. Broward’s students come from over 180 countries and in 2017 it was nationally ranked #3 in conferring associate degrees to minority students. There’s also almost no gap in three-year graduation/transfer rates since the graduation/transfer rate is 47% for all students and 46% for underrepresented minorities.

Almost half of its students are the first in their family to attend college and 80% of its students are enrolled part-time, so ensuring that students have the support they need is crucial. Broward offers over 100 degrees and certificates with classes during the day, at night, and online. This accommodates students’ busy schedules since the majority have jobs and many have family responsibilities. It also has Academic Success Centers which offer students services such as a laptop loan program, certified tutoring, ESL labs, and collaborative project space.

Broward’s unique approach to education allows students to design an academic experience as individual as they are. It also recognizes the importance of peer connections and focuses efforts on supporting clubs, leadership development, recreational activities, performing arts, fitness classes, and more. The individualized education and student involvement beyond the classroom make this community college an example for others.

San Jacinto College in Pasadena, TX

San Jacinto College, located in the greater Houston area, has four campus locations and offers 185 degrees and certificates. It has strong partnerships with many universities across Texas so that students who want to attend a four-year university can complete their academic requirements at San Jacinto College and will then be guaranteed admission to most universities in Texas.

In 2017, San Jacinto College received the Rising Star award by the Aspen Institute, recognizing its remarkable graduation/transfer rate improvement, which went from 29% to 38% in five years, and the number of credentials awarded went from 38% to 51% during that same five-year period.

San Jacinto College provides a range of programs to support students including veteran services, a student-run food assistance program, multiple counseling programs, job placement, and a child care program known as The Laboratory School, which includes early childhood education curriculum.

Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara, CA

The 2012 winner of the prestigious Aspen Prize, Santa Barbara City College has been recognized for its student-learning outcomes and its ability to facilitate minority and low-income student success.

Here are a few reasons why it was awarded the Aspen Prize:

  • For SBCC’s full-time students who begin there, two out of every three graduate within three years. This surpasses the national average of 40%.
  • When it comes to students who enter SBCC and transfer to four-year universities, well over half of them earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of leaving high school.
  • In terms of equity, over 30% of SBCC’s student population is Hispanic and SBCC has a strong three-year graduation/transfer rate of 48% for that specific student group. That rate is 13% higher than the national average.
  • SBCC’s dual-enrollment program is the largest of its kind and enables high school students to take community college courses from California’s 112 community colleges.
  • SBCC helps high school students develop long-term educational plans through its college readiness and career counseling programs.

Santa Barbara City College has 27 different offices dedicated to student services and success. The Transfer Academy is an award-winning program that helps students transfer successfully to four-year universities. Students who complete all required courses outlined in the program can qualify for guaranteed transfer to one of nineteen universities.

Another point of pride: the Partnership for Student Success, an initiative that is faculty-driven and student-supported. It encompasses four of its support programs, including the Writing Center and the Gateway program, which offers concentrated tutoring in specific subjects where the tutor works with a class section and specific individuals. In 2008, SBCC noted that for students who placed below college level in writing and reading, its course completion rate was nearly 7% higher in Gateway classes. From 2015-2016, 186 tutors worked with faculty in classrooms, labs, departmentally designated tutoring rooms, and other areas on campus. As a result of its success, the Gateway program has expanded, now including courses such as those in STEM fields.

Diving deeper into higher education

By offering guaranteed transfer programs, meeting the needs of a diverse student population, and providing a great deal of student support, these academic institutions are showing the true value of community colleges. As higher education continues to evolve with our world, we must continue our quest to learn what works best for all of our students.

One way to dive deeper is by earning an EdD in Higher Education. Concordia University-Portland’s comprehensive doctoral degree program prepares you for both leadership and instructional roles so that you can fully understand how to best support and empower our nation’s adult learners.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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