Colleges: Changing with the Times
A 2005 study of 133,000 students at 257 two-year colleges looked at the engagement of “at-risk” students—individuals who were either first-generation students, academically unprepared for a traditional four-year university or college, a minority, non-traditional learners or part-time students. Students at community colleges were three to four times more likely to fit into four or more of these categories than were their peers at four-year institutions, according to the 2005 report.
Created more than 100 years ago, the concept of a community college was to provide an affordable, close-to-home college experience. Today, community colleges represent one of the largest, fastest-growing segments of higher education, with 1,173 institutions educating 11.6 million students.
Community college students make up nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States. Typically, students are older than their traditional, 18-to-24-year-old college counterparts, and more likely to attend school part-time, commute to school, be financially independent and have family responsibilities, as well as a career. More than 80 percent of community college students balance academic studies with full- or part-time work.
In recent years, community colleges have witnessed a growing rise in the number of students with a bachelor and/or other degree returning to a community college. Their reasons vary, but often it is based on a desire to acquire additional training, upgrade skills, or to enter a new profession altogether.
The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) provides further insight into the changing face of today’s community college student. The survey, created in 2001 as a project of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin, is supported by grants from the Houston Endowment, the Lumina Foundation for Education, the MetLife Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Because of the characteristics of community college students and the challenges they bring with them to college—that is, they typically attend part-time, work and commute to school; many are first-generation college students and may have financial needs or be academically underprepared—we’ve learned one thing very clearly—student engagement is even more important for these students, but it is hard to achieve. They come to class and then they’re gone—back to families, back to work,” says Kay McClenney, director of the study.
By way of illustration, McClenney says that more than 85 percent of community college students never participate in college-sponsored extra-curricular activities. “So engagement won’t happen by accident; it has to happen by design,” she explains.
Findings from the CCSSE study cited key differences in engagement between low- and high-risk students. Students who were typically described as high-risk were in many ways more involved in their college experience than their peers. For example, these students were less likely to come to class unprepared, they interact more frequently with instructors outside the classroom, and they use support services more often. On the other hand, the study found that many of these same students had lower college aspirations overall, as well as demonstrated lower grades and lower persistence rates. In other words, they are working harder, but achieving lower results.
“For that reason, we are emphasizing that college faculty and staff do several things,” says McClenney. “First, they must purposefully redesign the ‘front door’ experience of the college—the students’ first few weeks and months are a critical transition time. Second, academic planning and advising must be emphasized—it matters that students have explicit goals and a clear path toward their achievement. Third, teaching strategies must be adopted that ensure a high level of active and collaborative learning, along with student-faculty interaction, in the classroom.”
Retention also played a significant role with nontraditional students, particularly with women. Nontraditional-age women were more likely to have plans to return to college the following semester—17 percent of nontraditional-age women cited plans to return, versus 25 percent of other students who said they had no plans to return to college the next semester or were uncertain of their plans.
Eye of the Beholder
To view the 2005 CCSSE report in its entirety, go to www.ccsse.org/aboutccsse/aboutccsse.cfm.