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Helping Community College Students Beat the Odds

October 8, 2008

Each semester, many community college students have to address an important and nagging question, “Should I stay or should I go?”

As retention becomes more of a key issue for two-year institutions, some educators argue that they need to focus on what leads students to ask that question. This, however, has not always been an easy task for many community colleges, oftentimes because their many and disparate student services are incongruously spread throughout their administrative structures. Hudson Valley Community College, a State University of New York institution located outside of Albany, has congregated its retention efforts under one banner to relative success and is hoping it can serve as a model.

Studies have shown that students seeking either an associate degree or higher who start at a two-year institution have a lower chance of achieving their educational goals than students who start at a four-year institution. This so-called “community college penalty” can be discouraging to some, especially in a time of rising enrollments at open-access institutions, due in part to economic distress. Still, Hudson Valley officials said they try not to think about the what-ifs for their students.

“Most of our students couldn’t have begun at a four-year institution,” said Kathy Quirk, associate dean for instructional support services and retention. “Also, most of our students do not transfer. We worry less about whether we wish they would have or if they would have been more successful. We concentrate on the ones who couldn’t have transferred or the ones for whom starting at a four-year institution wasn’t an option.”

With a semester-to-semester student retention rate of 73.7 percent -- counting all students from last year's fall to spring semester -- Hudson Valley boasts a figure that it says is higher than the national average. Even though, like so many institutions in this tight economy, its enrollment has ballooned recently, the college’s retention rate has remained relatively static with a fluctuation of only around 2 percent in the past five years. Quirk attributes the college's past success and future ambition -- the 12,000-student institution experienced a five percent growth this year -- to its robust retention efforts.

In 2001, Quirk's position was created to coordinate all of the institution's retention efforts, from its learning centers to its personal outreach programs. This combined approach to student services, she said, allows for clearer conversation between these programs, helping match students to what may best help them. Moreover, she noted, this gives retention efforts more leverage when the college is determining its budget.

"Student services have traditionally gotten the short end of the stick,” Quirk said. “When enrollment increases you have to hire more faculty, but it’s rare that student services gets additional hires at the same time. Now, with the coordinating of student services into one unit, it is really treated the same as any other department. Though all these offices have separate budgets, I oversee all of them. It’s easier to make requests within the budget.”

The college’s retention efforts strive, for the most part, to be proactive, hoping to reach students before they decide to take a hiatus from their studies, explained Kevin McNeelege, Hudson Valley retention specialist. One approach is an early warning system. Typically, professors provide academic counselors with a list of students likely to have difficulty before the first major tests of the semester. McNeelege said professors identify underperforming students by their behavior in the classroom and other factors such as tardiness and truancy. Counselors then direct these students to an appropriate student service for assistance. Other efforts to help students before they encounter trouble in the classroom include Smart Start, a two-week summer program for new students who show testing weakness in the three basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Placement tests are required of most students.

One of the college’s fastest growing retention-assistance programs is its Learning Center, which offers tutoring during the semester to students who seek academic help. Unlike those of some colleges, Quirk noted that its learning center tutors are full-time employees, which allows them to cater to more students more often. Last fall, almost 1,800 students visited the learning center almost 10,000 times for a total of around 12,800 hours. As Hudson Valley’s enrollment grows, usage of its Learning Center has increased steadily. Quirk said that it is important to note that along with this use growth, students are also staying longer each time. Students who use the Learning Center more often have higher grade point averages than less-frequent visitors.

Issues outside of the classroom, however, more often cause problems for students. Quirk said the Collegiate Assistance Support Program has an "emergency fund" with which it can lend money to students who may need it for pressing personal issues. Last year, she said, the college gave out more than $2,000 to students to purchase everything bus passes and supermarket gift cards to textbooks and medical attention. Often, she noted, students are in a bind near the beginning of the semester and cannot pay for basic services because they are still waiting for their delayed financial aid checks. Quirk said she plans to lobby to set aside between $5,000 and $7,000 for the emergency fund each semester.

Information collection is key to improving student retention, noted McNeelege. The college’s Student Outreach and Support Call Center -- a telephone hotline for students and their parents to ask logistical questions -- collects data from students who chose to leave Hudson Valley. Of the 490 “intent to not return” forms collected during the last two years from students who were eligible to return, nearly three-fourths came from those who had either graduated or transferred, which is to say that all these students had achieved their educational goals. The remaining percentage indicated they were not returning because of personal reasons.

Making sure students and faculty know about the institution’s student services -- now made simpler because of their consolidation -- is important to further bolstering retention, McNeelege said.

“It is often difficult to know when any individual student will need help,” McNeelege wrote in a recent college retention report. “Indeed, students may be reluctant to ask for help. Student concerns must be addressed when they are raised. Consequently, all faculty and staff members need to be responsible for knowing what resources are available, promoting students to use resources, and directing individual student appropriately.”

 

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