Many community college students take much longer than the intended two years to complete their studies, or don’t ever wind up graduating at all. Traditionally, administrators focused on accommodating those who may have credits but little direction.
Now, at some schools, greater attention is being placed on helping incoming freshmen not just enroll but also start off their college careers on a positive note. The idea is that they will stay and finish within two years.
One emerging retention tactic is to give first-time students first-in-line status at registration. Once a privilege reserved for those with the most academic credits, priority registration is now offered to freshmen at some community colleges—particularly in California, where every community college will be required to offer it at some level by fall 2014.
“For many years, community colleges focused on access, but outcomes are important as well,” says Mike Reilly, executive director of AACRAO.
“There is so much focus now on getting students started on the right path, as we look at retention losses and people taking more than four years to graduate. It has become very much a trend to focus on getting freshmen a full load of classes from their first semester.”
Here’s how institutional leaders are making priority registration for freshmen happen.
Like at many community colleges, Rio Hondo College (Calif.) has long offered priority registration for certain groups of students. These include those with special needs, the economically disadvantaged, veterans, and former foster youth.
But in 2011, Rio Hondo partnered with the University of California, Irvine to try something new with priority registration involving students from El Monte Union High School District, which had particularly low rates of college attendance.
Students who sign on to the El Monte Pledge program can take college prep courses and then receive priority registration at Rio Hondo as incoming freshmen. Those who complete their studies at Rio Hondo can automatically transfer to UC Irvine.
“In the past, incoming freshmen went to the bottom of the registration list and took the leftovers,” says Susan Herney, director of marketing and communication at the college. “We’ve reversed that, and it’s been good for retention because new students have the opportunity to take courses that will get them started on their path. … If the available course list doesn’t include anything you need as a freshman, that’s pretty discouraging.”
Students in the first El Monte Pledge group won’t have their first opportunity to transfer until next year, but preliminary data is promising, says Michael Munoz, associate dean of student services at Rio Hondo.
In fall 2011, El Monte Pledge program freshmen registered for 1,840 courses. By the end of the semester, 87.4 percent of those courses were completed, 68.5 percent of them with a grade of C or above. The entire student body completed 83.5 percent of its courses, and earned a C or above in 60 percent of them.
In spring 2012, the El Monte Pledge cohort completed 87 percent of its courses and 69.7 percent with a grade of C or above.
Based on the positive results of the El Monte Pledge program, Rio Hondo is launching a two-year pilot program this fall that will offer one-time priority registration to all freshmen who complete high school in the college’s service area.
“Our rationale is that they will get their feet wet and get college-smart, and then they’ll have the confidence to continue on their path,” Herney says.
Similarly, California’s West Hills Community College District began offering priority registration to incoming freshmen from local high schools in 2011. According to Pedro Avila, vice president of student services, the district had noticed a 15 percent decline in enrollment among local high school graduates, partly because budget cuts had reduced course sections and limited the availability of courses.
“A student’s spot in the registration line became increasingly important,” Avila says. Basing priority registration privileges primarily on unit accumulation “excluded eager students coming directly from high school,” he adds.
To take advantage of priority registration at West Hills, high school graduates must complete college admissions and financial aid applications, orientation, placement tests, and a student educational plan.
And Pierce College, also in California, gives incoming freshmen priority registration privileges as an incentive to apply early. They can move to the head of the registration line if they apply for the fall semester by May 1.
Colleges may have their own specific policies regarding priority registration for freshmen, but “making students matter is always a good retention strategy for any level of student,” says Tim Culver, vice president consulting services at Noel-Levitz.
If upperclass students taking courses out of sequence is shutting first-year students out of the courses they need, “giving them their courses back,” he adds, lets them know that they matter.
Implementing any new policy is bound to come with challenges. Offering priority registration requires a delicate balance, as no college wants to keep its upperclassmen from getting into a course they need to graduate. “The art of registration is being able to give a group priority registration without impacting other groups,” Reilly says.
The first group of El Monte Pledge students that Rio Hondo offered priority registration to was small, “so the freshmen didn’t come in and snap up all the courses,” says Herney.
“It was more of a filtered down impact, rather than closing the door in the face of upperclassmen,” she adds.
In some cases, MOOCs and other online options can help make it possible for larger numbers of students to take the same courses. Many institutions are moving more courses online, “particularly bottleneck courses,” Reilly says. “A lot of people are excited about MOOCs because they can take the pressure off registration, allowing for larger course sections and making it easier to add new sections.”
When a college implements priority registration for freshmen, backlash from upperclassmen may not be an issue, “unless the course rotation schedule and advising practices aren’t being managed well by the academic and student affairs leadership to begin with,” Culver says. In his view, well-managed registration involves ensuring a school’s two-year graduation promise can be kept.
In addition, advisors should create a culture of completion in conversations with students, providing them regularly with course rotation suggestions.
“If these are challenges to begin with, this registration strategy might begin to align the students in a good spot on their pathway to completion,” Culver says.
Commitment for support
Making priority registration for freshmen truly work as a retention strategy must involve a commitment to supporting those students as they begin their studies. “Opportunities for orientation, educational program planning assistance, and assessment are critical components to helping students get started on the right path,” says Rio Hondo’s Munoz.
Rio Hondo offers a “summer bridge” program for incoming freshmen, which helps keep them from floundering during the first critical months, he says.
“There is a robust student life component to our student services program, because we believe that students who are engaged in campus life and activities are more likely to succeed. Such engagement is important to generate college connections, which we believe are vital to academic success.”
As with any new policy, implementing priority registration for freshmen should involve tracking data and revisiting it regularly, and then making changes to policy accordingly, Reilly says.
Culver adds that any program or tactic attempting to affiliate students early and often to their academic program of choice is worthy of trying, but also needs evaluation. Officials should be discussing the desired outcomes and then determining if they were achieved. “Whether it’s in a priority setting or not,” he says, “attempts to ensure that students are on the right path are essential.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based freelance writer.