Helping Community Colleges Raise the Bar

New data from engagement survey suggest that two-year institutions need to have higher expectations of students -- especially outside of the classroom.
November 17, 2008

Community college students often face challenges significantly different from those of their counterparts at four-year institutions. Many more at community colleges work, attend class part-time or have pressing family obligations. As a result, their professors and administrators may empathize more with their students but ultimately have lower expectation of them. The latest findings from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement -- an annual report providing comparative data on student experiences -- suggest that two-year institutions need to raise the expectations they have of their students and improve access to services that help them meet these goals.

CCSSE assesses the quality of student engagement in five categories: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction and support for learners. This year’s report was compiled from responses provided from more than 343,000 community college students at 585 two-year institutions around the United States, as well as a few from abroad. To optimize the results, the data make use of this year’s responses in addition to those from the previous two years for a wider and more diverse sample size. Much like the National Survey of Student Engagement -- which recently released its 2008 report -- CCSSE provides its participating institutions with their detailed results to help them improve their program. Unlike NSSE, however, institutional scores on both the five categories of engagement and on individual questions are publicly available.

Overall engagement is low for community college students out of the classroom, according to the survey. Only 16 percent reported that they discussed ideas with their professors outside of class, and 21 percent worked with classmates outside of class to prepare assignments. In the classroom, engagement figures were higher but still notably low. Twenty-eight percent said they had either "often" or "very often" made a class presentation, and 46 percent said they had either "often" or "very often" worked with other students on projects during class.

These figures were higher for students at four-year institutions, according to this year's NSSE report -- 33 percent of first-year students had "often" or "very often" made a class presentation and 60 percent of seniors had done the same. Additionally, 43 percent of first-year students at four-year institutions had worked with other students on projects during class either "often" or "very often," while 47 percent of their senior counterparts had done the same.

Kay McClenney, CCSSE director and head of the department of educational administration at the University of Texas at Austin, said these low engagement figures no longer surprise her, but said they continue to surprise many community college faculty members. She noted that many community college students are multi-taskers who have numerous obligations aside from classwork. For example, the survey notes that 62 percent of its participants were part-time students, and 56 percent of them work more than 20 hours per week. Additionally, it notes that 33 percent spend 11 or more hours a week caring for dependents, and 93 percent commute at least one hour per week.

“Community colleges know their students, but students tell us that they are overempathetic,” McClenney said. “People can tell the difference between empathy and low expectations. Students don’t like low expectations. We need to do a better job of meeting students where they are being flexible without seeming like we have low expectations of them. It’s a delicate balance.”

In order to improve overall student engagement, McClenney suggested that community college professors work on engaging students in and out of the classroom. She suggested that more professors should require study groups and that students actively meet with them throughout the semester. Such changes might be a burden initially, but McClenney said these steps can improve both engagement and student performance.

“We have to ditch this old-fashioned notion of what we can and cannot require students to do at community colleges,” McClenney said, noting that colleges also have to rethink the way they offer student services. “We have this model that behaves as though community colleges are traditional colleges. That’s not going to work.”

Across the board, students reported that they valued student services -- such as academic and career counseling, tutoring, childcare and financial aid advising -- more than they actually used them. For example, even though 62 percent of students said academic advising was “very” important to them, only 13 percent said they take advantage of it “often.” Thirty-five percent said they had “rarely” or never used it at all. Colleges can be more successful, McCleeney said, if they integrate such services as academic advising into their curriculum and bring them directly to students.

More than half of the students surveyed indicated that either obtaining an associate degree or transferring to a four-year college or university were among their primary goals for attending community college. Completing a certificate program, obtaining or updating job-related skills and changing careers were among the other goals listed. Though McClenney said she expects the figure expressing transferring as a goal to rise, she noted that the goal of obtaining an associate degree has remained relatively static through the years.

Echoing the financial concerns of many in higher education, a “lack of finances” was chief among the reasons students cited that could cause them to either withdraw from a class or community college entirely, with 45 percent of students reporting it was "likely" or "very likely." This number, McClenney said, will probably rise, as this year’s survey was conducted before the recent downturn in the economy.

“These conditions create the perfect storm for community colleges,” McClenney said. “There’s a dramatic increase in enrollment right at the time when there’s a dramatic reduction in student services. Also, those students who need more financial assistance might not be able to get it. There’s no time like a recession to be clear about your priorities. Institutions should focus on their front door and require that students do things we know generate success. Retention is a revenue stream.”

Among the more telling findings of this year’s survey are the characteristics of the most and least engaged community college students. “High-risk” students -- in almost every varying definition of the term -- report they are more engaged than low-risk students. Black, international and financially dependent students -- or "those using funds other than their own income or savings as a major source to pay the tuition" -- are among the most engaged, while their respective opposites are among the least engaged.

McClenney said this is a phenomenon that has been noted ever since the first CCSSE report in 2001. Though it strikes many as counterintuitive -- these students are called “high-risk” for a reason -- she said this notation is primarily due to the nature of the survey. Only those “high-risk” students who make it to the spring semester – when CCSSE is administered – have their responses included. As a result, McClenney said this quirk of the survey should serve as an example of how engagement improves student success.

“High levels of engagement have a compensatory affect,” McClenney said, noting that high expectations and services likely helped these students stay in college. “It helps to even the playing field between high- and low-risk students.”


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