Improving community college completion rates is not just a matter of opening the doors to greater access, though access is fundamentally important. Reaching that goal will also require partnering with our students to help them see what they can achieve if they take advantage of that access.
An effective strategy for boosting completion must have three key ingredients: sound data, student engagement, and academic and advisory processes that promote success. Here’s how it can be done.
Collect good data to better understand students and their needs.
At East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), we are getting very serious about using data in planning. We know, for example, that some students come here with no intention of completing a degree or certificate program. They intend to study here for a period of time and then move on to one of the four-year institutions near us. Gathering and assessing that kind of information about our student population will help us create a more realistic approach to our completion goal.
At the same time, we need to find out which students should stay longer before they transfer, so we can facilitate their success. If we collect meaningful data, we can have the right conversations with those students before they move on prematurely.
Create opportunities for engagement that start as soon as students arrive on campus.
AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus has been trumpeting the concept of engaged access for several years, and I fully support his message and that approach. Incorporating engagement into the college experience means we don’t leave students to fend for themselves once they arrive. It means that instead of focusing solely on efficiency, we provide less efficient but more personal hands-on support.
Let me give you an example. In our high tech environment, a student who wants to withdraw from school can do so online. Typically, we don’t have the chance to talk with that student about why he or she wants to withdraw. It might be because of difficulty finding child care, or the fear of talking to an instructor about a problem in class. In many cases, we can help the student manage those issues if we know about them.
A better approach might be to require any student who wants to withdraw completely from an institution to talk to someone first. Facilitating that conversation may be less efficient than using an automatic process, but it is more likely to allow us to match students with the support they need to stay in school and earn their credentials.
Develop intentional processes to give students the tools they need to complete their studies.
The methods we design for teaching and advising students also make a difference. EMCC has a pilot program using the Navigator model of intrusive advising for some of our career tech students and student athletes. We work very hard to get to know these students, as well as their personal challenges, so that advisers can intervene if necessary and hold the students accountable for their progress. The program has been so successful we are considering how we might implement collegewide.
Incorporating proactive student support into classroom instruction is another way to give students the tools for success. We need to ask how we can help our students better engage with the material they are studying. Are there some things we can do with technology to enhance the learning experience? Are there new ways of teaching that might meet their needs? Those are all conversations I think good schools are having.
Having spent 25 years in higher education, I’m well aware of the socio-economic barriers to completion many of our students face, including poverty and poor academic preparation. Helping them overcome barriers calls for a data-driven yet personalized approach to addressing their needs.