5 ways to improve community college completion rates

A new report suggests five structured group practices for community colleges to improve student completion rates

community-college-completionAccording to the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 31 percent of 18 to 24 year-old college students and more than half of all online students in the U.S. attend two-year institutions.

Yet, ensuring that students complete an associate’s degree on time is one of the biggest challenges facing educators, students, and administrators, based on findings in a new report issued by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas.

“A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways,” the third and final series of annual reports published by the CCCSE, reveals a disturbing trend among two-year community colleges: Only half of students who enter a community college receive a degree or are still enrolled in school six years later.

While these statistics should cause concern, the CCCSE report found several optimistic results: Students who signed up for all of their courses early were four times more likely to continue during fall to spring and 11 times more likely to continue during fall to fall. Developmental students were four times more likely to pass an introductory college credit class (gatekeeper) English class if they had signed up for a student success class that taught time management and studying skills. And developmental math students were three times more likely not to drop a course if the teacher had an attendance policy.

John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College and a 24-year veteran in higher education, praised the findings in the CCCSE report while also sharing some of Excelsior’s best practices.

(Next page: 5 structured group practices for schools to improve student completion rates)

1.  Orientation practices: Schools that adopt a single event or extended structured experience to familiarize students with campus life, academics, and expectations can expect higher completion rates. According to a SENSE-linked student report, 77 percent of 2,896 SENSE developmental students participated in orientation and of those who participated were nearly two times more likely to successfully complete a developmental math course and two times more likely to complete a developmental English course.

Ebersole admits that while these results were positive, he was unsure if they are as relevant for online students and for older students. “How can an online student get the ‘first year experience’ on campus?” However, he adds that if you can get someone to complete their first or second courses in their first year, the completion rates rise dramatically.

2.  Fast track remedial coursework: Many students struggle to complete remedial courses needed to advance to college-level work. Therefore, many schools are modifying developmental education by requiring fast-track paths, reducing student time spent in developmental learning.

While this model may work for some, Ebersole says Excelsior has benefited from embedding into early courses both a math and English element. “We have a math course that we renamed ‘everyday living’ to make it sound less intense as math can be scary to some. In that course, we have adopted open course from the Khan Academy. In the area of writing, which is almost a universal problem, we find that our online writing lab has been a tremendous benefit.”

However, he says it’s better for the student if the school embeds remedial modules into regular degree-satisfying coursework. This reduces the stigma and allows for financial aid. “That has to be complemented with assessment because we don’t want to pass people along if they are not mastering the material.”

3.  Enhanced first-year experience: Students participating in a freshman seminar course are more likely to complete a developmental English or math course than those who did not participate. The first couple of courses for incoming students can determine the remainder of their educational experience.

“Those who completed those first courses would not only go on to graduate, but have the highest grades,” said Ebersole about Excelsior students. “They have the discipline and motivation to be successful. We’re trying to show adult learners that they can do it and be successful and to get over the fear of failure and lack of self-confidence.”

4.  Student success programming: Courses designed to teach skills and strategies to help students succeed such as time management and study skills play a critical role in determining completion rates. At Excelsior, Ebersole says, student advising has been exceptional. Every student receives an individualized learning plan on what credits are required for the degree and this makes it a lot more predictable, thus reducing anxiety and building confidence. There is a one-year information literacy course to make students aware of all of the resources available and how to access them. There are also a variety of other supportive resources and tools available to help students succeed.

5.  Supportive learning community: Students often perform better in a learning community that involves two or more linked courses that a group of students take together. This type of collaboration enhances inter-personal communication skills, builds confidence, and promotes team work—necessary skills to be marketable in the workforce.

While Ebersole notes the positive role a supportive learning community can play, he says educators need to improve interaction with employers to ensure the competencies with graduate students meet their demands.

These proposals to improve completion rates come with certain challenges and opportunities for students and educators.

“Higher education globally is incredibly resistant to change, similar to large institutions like the military and the church,” he says. “The challenge is our need to get more of our workforce educated. We definitely need to be doing things differently if we are to be competitive in the global economy.”

Michael Sharnoff is associate online editor at eCampus News. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_eSM.

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