Students these days are increasingly doubting the value of a college degree, choosing not to further pursue education after high school. College enrollments have been falling since 2010, dipping at a steeper rate during the pandemic, and continuing their decline this spring. Community colleges have been among the hardest hit.
The cost of higher education is an obvious element impacting this decline, but in some areas of the country, many prospective students have other practical concerns, such as the need for childcare or food assistance. Students who are the first in their families to attend college also may need help navigating academic life. And across the board, more students are uncertain about whether a college education will pay off in the working world.
Some community colleges are responding by making higher education more accessible by addressing educational and everyday needs. One such example is the United Tribal Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, which exemplifies how a community college may redesign services to better serve students. UTTC creates programs designed to help students attend college and emerge with stronger skills to take into their professional careers.
Addressing Students’ Life Experiences
Students at tribal institutions often face a unique set of challenges. In many cases, students in these communities have other commitments, such as full- or part-time jobs, as well as dependents who rely on them. As a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, UTTC students share many of the challenges faced by students at other schools within the consortium, which comprises 35 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) with more than 75 campuses in 16 states.
UTTC offers a variety of educational programs, including certificates, associate’s, and bachelor’s degrees, but does so while taking into consideration the particular needs of the tribal communities and nations served. Specifically, the school has designed student support and educational programs to meet the students where they are academically.
For example, UTTC offers childcare services and food assistance programs to assist students, and these support systems are similar to the family support systems found in their home communities. This support allows the students to better focus on their programs of study and enhance their ability to complete successfully. Short-term training certificate programs such as welding and heavy equipment are in high demand in their home communities as well as the oil and gas industry in the state of North Dakota. These educational programs help students become immediately productive in the workforce while earning an income that allows for considering this vocation as a career. UTTC also offers stackable certificates that enable students to advance in their current careers, while allowing the student to progress towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree that may open new opportunities for future career advancement.
Improving Student Retention With Technology
TCUs often work with students whose financial obligations and family responsibilities may leave them unprepared for college life. This often results in student retention issues, particularly with first-time-ever-in-college (FTEIC) students.
To better understand and resolve those issues, UTTC implemented a student success and retention system in the fall of 2015. The system aggregates student information across different departments on campus, producing insights into student risk factors and the probability of success. UTTC applied 17 factors that can affect student retention (ranging from tribal affiliation to financial need) to an alert system that initiates workflows so the school can quickly intervene to get students the help they need.
Since then, the system has delivered significant improvements, evolving over time to adapt to changing circumstances. After seeing a 30-percentage-point increase in student retention over the first two years, the college saw an 11-point drop in 2018, and a flat performance in 2019. The reason? The school’s demographics were changing, skewing younger and more often consisted of single students with fewer dependents. The established alert system wasn’t working for the new population.
To address the challenges brought about by changing student demographics, the college simplified information gathering and built a new alert model that was better able to identify students in the new population who were struggling. Retention rates quickly rebounded. Overall, in the past five years, UTTC has seen FTEIC retention rates increase by 37 points—or a whopping 200 percent.
Education for the Real World
In today’s climate, schools need to do more than educate. The need is even more pressing for community colleges serving struggling, low-income communities. Community colleges that want to better serve their communities, as their names suggest, must have a deeper understanding of their environments as well as their students, including their daily lives and responsibilities, economic situations, and educational challenges.
Community colleges in particular may need to provide social programs to help students attend school, as well as educational curriculums that prepare them to succeed in their community and beyond. This may mean partnering with area middle and high schools, local businesses, or implementing unique retention programs that can better identify struggling students and put them back on the trajectory to success.
By focusing on students’ real-world needs and making use of available technology, community colleges like UTTC can make higher education viable to a broader population. Students, and the colleges themselves, stand to benefit from such an approach.
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