You are here

Community Colleges

Put a Ring on It

Engaging students to set the foundation for success
University Business, Jul 2011
A recently renovated dining hall at Lonestar College-North Harris (Texas) encourages students to linger and visit with peers.

Engaged students are successful students. That is a well known fact on college campuses. The trick is encouraging that engagement, particularly for community college leaders. "About 80 percent of our students are low income," says Stephen Head, president of Lone Star College-North Harris (Texas). "Many of them are also the first in their family to attend college."

Another common issue is lack of commitment on the part of the students. "Our classes are cheap, so it's not a big financial hit to drop one and take it again," says William Rainey, professor of visual communications at Austin Community College's South Austin Campus (Texas).

Engaging students and creating a sense of connection to campus is a group effort that requires a multipronged approach. Here are several areas to consider.

The main group of people students interact with on campus is faculty, and this first line of connection can't be overlooked. Campus leaders realized years ago that students don't want to walk all over campus to file paperwork, which led to one-stop shops for student services.

The next level is not making students walk at all. "We're encouraged by colleges finding ways to bring those services into the classroom," says Angela Oriano-Darnall, associate director of the College Relations Center for Community College Student Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. "With part-time commuters, the best way to engage students is in the class."

As more traditional-age students start at community colleges, faculty members are requiring students to come see them after the first assessment, something older students did on their own, she says.

"As we're seeing the literature about what it takes to keep these students engaged, [faculty are] doing more academic counseling," says Amy Baldwin, an instructor of English and student success at Pulaski Technical College (Ark.) and co-founder of the National Institute for Student Success. "I'm doing much more of that over my career. We're taking much more of a 'whole student' approach." Overall today, there is greater understanding about what role college services play in helping students succeed, she says.

'With part-time commuters, the best way to engage students is in the class.' -Angela Oriano-Darnall, College Relations Center for Community College Student Engagement

Faculty are using technology to expand office hours. "It is so much easier for them," says Rainey. "They can contact me when they are home, or in between classes in a computer lab." Through the Adobe Connect system he uses for distance education, he can make himself available into the evening for students who work 9 to 5. "It makes me work harder during my office hours," he quips, although he draws the line at weekend hours. If it wasn't for the hurdle of funding, he thinks online tutors would be a great idea.

Faculty members at North Harris are encouraged to make themselves available in the Teaching and Learning Center to provide extra academic assistance, but are not required to be advisors, says Head. "I want them to focus on what goes on in the classroom and spending time with students if they need to. I know some colleges require faculty to be advisors, but I don't want them to do it if they don't want to." Making themselves available through consistent office hours is also satisfactory for Head. "I know our faculty work hard. I don't want our faculty doing administrative work, that is why we have the advisors."

The support of the administration along with on- and off-campus professional development opportunities goes a long way, says Baldwin. "Also having more information shared with us about success rates is important." The focus on data encouraged by Achieving the Dream, the national nonprofit that helps community college students, helps colleges and professors target their efforts where professional development is concerned, she adds.

"Regrettably, when times get tough, too many colleges will turn to professional development as an area they can cut, and it's not," cautions Oriano-Darnall. "The colleges where they are doing great work with the entering students are doing good work with the faculty."

Faculty involvement can be a key to connecting students to campus and helping them persist to graduation, as efforts at Pulaski Technical College (Ark.) have shown.

While faculty members at North Harris are focusing on the in-class experience, dedicated counselors are helping students through their first year of college. Head is building a staff of 20 advisors who will act as success coaches. A key component is for the advisors to reflect the diversity of the campus community so students feel comfortable discussing both academic and personal topics. He sees advisors discussing the feasibility of taking 18 hours of classes while also working 30 hours a week, and mentioning student activities and other things the college has to offer. "We have lots of data and know that, if we can get them engaged, success rates are 5 to 10 percent higher," he says.

The advisors have set caseloads and work with the same students throughout their freshmen year. "We have a matrix for how often and when they should contact the students," such as when it's time to register or apply for financial aid, Head explains. "We call students after they register to check in on them. It has worked."

Both advisors and faculty refer students to the Teaching and Learning Center for extra help. Data has shown that six to eight visits a semester increase academic success and 12 visits help in passing and finishing the class, notes Head.

Male African-American Pulaski students can apply to become part of The Network for Student Success, which provides success coaches and is aimed at improving the educational outcomes of this group. The program, shares Baldwin, "provides tutoring, co-curricular activities, and guest speakers. It's a great way of bringing a group together and keeping them engaged and on track."

"People need to be connected," Oriano-Darnall says. "With all of the student engagement work, particularly with entering students, it is critical to foster those relationships: student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to-coursework."

While student activities can go a long way in connecting students to campus, they can be difficult to sustain at community colleges. "Our students have so many competing interests, it's hard to get a student activity [to flourish]," says Baldwin. Academically successful students will often pursue student groups to improve their leadership skills, but generally, these groups need a lot of nourishment.

Academically successful students will often pursue student groups to improve their leadership skills, but generally, these groups need a lot of nourishment.

Oriano-Darnall is seeing traditional college experiences being mandated at some institutions. "The bottom line is students don't do optional, period," she says. But college leaders are realizing that not to promote these activities "is the equivalent of educational malpractice."

North Harris data indicates students involved in activities have a 5 percent to 12 percent higher rate of success than those who aren't, shares Head. Students in developmental classes have shown the most improvement. The Student Outreach and Recruiting office promotes activities on a campus digital signage network. A cafeteria redesign introduced "Miami" colors to the decor, good food, wireless access, and inviting seating to ensure students will want to hang out with peers, Head says. "It's all part of the package."

"The first three weeks in particular are critical to student success," says Head. The sense of belonging developed at semester's start has to be fostered through staff and peer connections. "They [students] have to do their part, but it's our obligation to provide the support services they need." Oriano-Darnall agrees. "With the focus on completions, we're seeing colleges returning to the front door. They are spending energy making sure those entering student engagements are as timely and effective as possible."

Student success courses, which often address both academic and life skills, are increasingly changing from optional to mandatory, especially for students identified as at-risk. Oriano-Darnall says college leaders are worrying less about telling adults what to do and more about promoting success knowing the students will thank them for it later.

One example is at Houston Community College. At first, students who tested into multiple developmental courses were required to take a college success class, and now it's mandatory for all, Oriano-Darnall says. Research indicates that semester-long classes are most effective (not surprising, considering the amount of information provided and the time needed to develop relationships.

"The overall motivation is to keep them engaged and successful," says Baldwin. Research has shown the longer it takes students to complete courses, the less likely they are to persist.

The recent focus on completion rates through national initiatives such as Complete College America, she adds, has shown promise in accelerated classes.The compressed eight-week courses are easier to fit into already busy schedules. "We're finding that if they test into too many levels of remedial classes, they are less likely to complete," she says. "Acceleration is more about placing them in a college-level course, but also giving them tutoring support." Reaching college level classes more quickly by taking introductory and intermediate algebra in rapid succession is encouraging to students.

'This has to be a priority with the college president. Not all of this is about money.' -Stephen Head, Lone Star College-North Harris

"We're doing some [eight-week] block classes for developmental English," says Gary Clark, vice president of instruction at North Harris. "It's still in the experimental phase, but we're going to keep exploring it." He notes that it's difficult to get someone up to speed in English composition in just eight weeks. Still, they're excited about pairing developmental classes with regular classes for business majors, which allows them to pursue interests from the start. "If they have a goal in mind and are making progress, that might result in persistence," he says.

Making content relevant to life off campus is very important, says Baldwin. "If I'm an office worker and I'm in a writing class, I want to know there will be things relevant to my life, not just analyzing Death of a Salesman."

"Students can't complete if they don't come back," says Oriano-Darnall. "If we lose 40 percent of students, in first term, we won't get there."

"The key to all of this to me is that this has to be a priority with the college president," says Head. "Not all of this is about money." Although he's added 20 advisors, he has reallocated people from other areas of campus so there's no net gain in staff. He attributes the 70 percent growth of campus in his four years at the helm to improved retention rates. "It's deciding what your priority is going to be," he says. "It's a matter of how you are going to treat students. ... It's unfair to just throw them into class and say 'good luck.'"

As a lead college for the Gates Foundation's Completion by Design program, Head feels the focus is on "what we are doing to help them meet their goals."

"That is what success is about," he says. "Do they have reasonable goals and is someone helping them meet them?"