Fighting Student Attrition
The Survey of Entering Student Engagement, or SENSE for short, is one of two annual national surveys released by the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Both explore ways that American community colleges can improve postsecondary education quality by way of engaging students and giving them the tools they need to succeed.
The 2009 SENSE report focuses on the problem of student attrition. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly a quarter of community college students drop out in their first year, and only about 55% graduate or remain at any postsecondary institution within three years of starting school. The SENSE data suggests that this isn't for a lack of interest - 90% of students in the survey said that they agreed or strongly agreed that they had the motivation to succeed in college. Instead, the problem seems to be with the support system for entering students, which is failing to offer proactive guidance to help students develop academic good habits. Although 85% of students believed that they were academically prepared when they began college, just three weeks into the first term a third of them had already turned in assignments late and a quarter of them reported skipping class at least once.
As the economy drives more and more people into 2-year and vocational schools, community colleges have taken a greater interest in the entering student experience and how those students can be retained. Drawing on data from 50,327 students at 120 participating community colleges, the CCCSE offers six benchmarks for increasing student success rates. The organization suggests that relying on the following benchmarks will not only help colleges set internal goals, but will also allow them to share these best practices with other institutions and to compare their performance to national averages.
CCCSE's past research shows that almost all students who persist at community colleges form strong personal connections early in their time at school. In order to explore the efforts institutions are making to encourage these connections, the current survey evaluated how welcome students felt and how much information and guidance they received in their first term's first three weeks.
Most students - 72% - felt that their college was very friendly and welcoming, but efforts to forge lasting relationships were lacking. Less than half of all respondents indicated that even one college staff member had learned their names, and only 23% said that specific persons were assigned to them to provide ongoing information or assistance. Students expressed frustration with the way academic counseling is set up at many community colleges, requiring them to repeat themselves to a new counselor every time they come in for academic advising. Assigning a specific counselor to each new student would encourage students to seek help whenever they need it and help them form those crucial early relationships.
High Expectations and Goals
As noted above, almost all students arrive in college with the intention and motivation to succeed. When college faculty and staff match those expectations, students are likely to rise to the challenge, adopting attitudes and behaviors that are more apt to lead to achievement. Some even find themselves aspiring even higher - colleges that provide an exceptionally supportive environment tend to have high transfer success rates to 4-year institutions.
Survey data shows that there's a significant gap between students' expectations and the realities they face in class. Faculty who have clear expectations can help bridge that gap - students speak favorably of professors who lay out course guidelines from day one and follow through with students when they're struggling.
When CCCSE broke down the expectations and performance data by gender and race, they noticed one breakout group. Although all men reported having the same motivation levels - 88% agree that they possess the motivation to do what it takes to succeed in college - there's a pronounced difference in behavior between men of color and other male students. Forty percent of men of color report turning in assignment late at least once, as compared to 33% of other men, and men of color also tended to exhibit a higher rate of not turning in assignments at all. The report suggests that these findings could be of use to colleges seeking to reach out to minority groups.
Clear Academic Pathway
The same study that noted that supportive colleges have higher transfer success rates also found that successful colleges laid out a specific pathway to transfer from day one. Similarly, SENSE notes that students tend to find it easier to stay on track if advisors help them lay out specific academic paths. These plans should not only include the courses they need to take, but also their specific academic goals and some guidelines for achieving them.
The SENSE data indicates that helping with course and major selection is about as far as most community college advisors go. Almost two-thirds of survey respondents reported meeting with an academic advisor, 70% reported that advisors helped them identify their courses and 60% reported that advisors helped them select their courses of study. However, one-third of respondents indicated that these advisors did not help them develop their academic pathways, and half of respondents said that no college staff member asked them about commitments outside of school when determining how many courses they should take.
Effective College Readiness Track
College prep is a hot topic in education for a reason: Over six in 10 community college students nationwide are unprepared for college-level work. Some colleges are offering developmental courses for local high school students to try to improve the situation, but colleges still need to be able to catch students who may graduate from high school unprepared. In order to ensure that they are capable of succeeding, colleges need to offer accurate assessments and placement into appropriate skills courses. The SENSE data indicates that many schools are already following through: 87% of students reported being required to take a placement test before they could register for courses, and 81% reported being required to enroll in classes indicated by their placement scores during their first term.
Schools are also doing a fine job of actually imparting better academic and study skills, whether through developmental classes or regular coursework: 73%of respondents indicated that they learned to improve their study skills through a course or other college experience. Sixty-nine percent also reported gaining a better understanding of the academic strengths and weaknesses they may have.
From SENSE 2009: Benchmarking and Benchmarks, page 14.
It's widely accepted that engaged students are better learners. The survey explored several measures of student engagement: Speaking in class, revising and editing assignments, working collaboratively, working in outside study groups, participating in supplemental instruction or using electronic tools for communicating with classmates and instructors. Key results may be seen in the graph above.
Overall, they found that full time students were significantly more engaged than part time students. Although many colleges hope that electronic communication tools will help draw in part time students, 55% report never using electronic tools to communicate with other students, and 48% report never even using these to communicate with professors.
Academic and Social Support
Personal networks are important for guiding new students through the process of settling in. They can help entering students learn about college services and provide crucial academic and social support. The SENSE report points out that because many students don't know what to ask, it's important for colleges to reach out to help them create these networks.
Most students reported having positive experiences building networks. Two-thirds indicated that all instructors clearly explained the academic and student support services available to them. Around 90% also felt that instructors clearly explained grading policies and course syllabi and made themselves available during times outside of class. Students also reported developing peer networks in their first few weeks. Eighty-one percent said that at least one other student learned their names, and 85% indicated learning the name of at least one student in most of their classes. Respondents also praised student unions and other on-campus meeting places for encouraging students to get to know one another.