Research has identified several ways for colleges that enroll lesser-prepared students to improve their graduation rates. But college leaders are often wary of those solutions, because they can take a whack at the bottom line and challenge a tradition of open doors.
Klamath Community College recently went all in with several measures aimed at improving student retention, including mandatory orientation for students, mandatory advising and the elimination of late registration for courses. The college’s new president, Roberto Gutierrez, said he knew those policies could discourage or freeze out some students.
“We have a system that doesn’t reward student success. It rewards seat time.”
--Roberto Gutierrez, president of Klamath Community College
He was right. Klamath saw its enrollment decline roughly 20 percent last fall, when compared to the previous year. The small college, which is located in Southern Oregon and enrolls about 1,500 students, will receive $800,000 less from the state this year, because Oregon’s funding formula for two-year institutions is largely enrollment-driven. That’s more than 7 percent of Klamath’s total annual budget.
“We were driven by doing the right thing,” said Gutierrez, but “it does hurt.”
The smaller numbers on campus may be due to other reasons besides students failing to register for courses in time or deciding after mandatory orientation and advising that college isn’t for them. And the college can’t say for sure what’s driving the shift. But Gutierrez, who became the college’s president last summer, thinks much of the decline is due to the retention efforts. If it’s even half of the driver, that’s $400,000 less this year.
“We have a system that doesn’t reward student success,” he said. “It rewards seat time.”
While the college now faces a financial crunch, it might be better off in the long run. That’s because if students stick around longer and more make it to graduation, enrollment should stabilize or even improve.
Klamath's leaders said the retention efforts are in line with ambitious goals  set by the state's Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, who wants 40 percent of the state's residents to hold an associate degree or certificate by 2025. And few would argue with the college's desire to get more of its students to the finish line -- with a meaningful degree or certificate, that is.
“We’ve really encouraged colleges to do what’s good for students,” said Carol Lincoln, senior vice president for Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit group that works with community colleges. “Just having their numbers up; who is that really helping?”
Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Payoff?
Klamath Community College is an Achieving the Dream partner  institution, which means the college has agreed to use data-driven decision-making to try to improve student success rates. Some of the initiatives championed by the group can be tough medicine.
Achieving the Dream is a vocal supporter of “make it mandatory,” a refrain often used by Kay McClenney, an expert on community colleges and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. McClenney, backed by research, argues  that mandatory orientations and advising can boost student retention rates.
For example, prior to last year, only 50 percent of students at Klamath were attending orientation. College officials said  that means those students were missing out on vital information about the college and how to navigate it.
Yet many colleges resist the mandatory approach, feeling it is paternalistic and too prescriptive for the large numbers of adult students who attend community colleges, where the average age of students typically hovers around 25. And red tape and hassles, like mandatory scheduling, can discourage students who may have been on the fence about attending college in the first place.
Lincoln and Gutierez aren't shy with their take on this dilemma, however, saying that if students decide to drop out rather than going to orientation or meeting with academic advisers, then maybe they aren’t ready for college – or the debt they might incur before dropping out later.
Late registration poses a similar, perhaps even more serious challenge. Adult students with fulltime jobs are probably more likely than their traditional-aged, nonworking peers to fail to register in time for courses. And overburdened community colleges are hardly easy bureaucracies to navigate for students, who are often the first in their families to attend colleges. By locking out students who try to sign up for a class a week or two after it’s begun, Klamath is essentially opting to restrict access.
But research has shown that students who register late are more likely to fail courses or drop out of college.
“You’re starting behind,” said Lincoln. “It’s putting one more thing in front of a student that keeps them from succeeding.”
In that sense, Klamath is changing tack in a way that resembles recent decisions  by a few for-profits, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which have created free trial periods for students. During those orientation weeks, students can find out whether they are ready for college and leave without spending any money or receiving federal financial aid. The universities can also decide that students are better served by not enrolling, at least for now.
Lincoln said that other Achieving the Dream colleges have absorbed recent enrollment hits they at least partially attribute to ending late registration. But enrollments are down around much of the country, for various reasons, so it’s hard to determine the role of student success efforts. And she said the move will eventually pay off for colleges.
“In the long run colleges will see a positive impact on their retention,” said Lincoln.
It’s too early to say conclusively if that’s happening at Klamath, but the early returns look good. College officials said fall-to-winter retention rates have jumped from approximately 60 percent for first-year students to 80 percent this year. If those improvements are sustained, they could substantially boost the college’s graduation rate , which is 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education (which only counts first-time, full-time students). The college also has a 31 percent student “transfer out” rate.
Gutierrez said he thinks most of the college’s faculty and staff back the new policies, and understand that they are aimed at improving student retention. And the college didn’t really have a choice, he said, “if we mean what we say about student success.” Even so, it hasn’t been easy.
“I may be a short-term president,” Gutierrez said. He sounded like he was joking -- mostly.