Essay on reforms needed to promote success at community colleges

The lines for advisers begins to form early in the morning in late summer and early fall at my community college. It is August, six days from the start of classes, and we will likely admit and enroll 35 percent of our new fall students in the next week. These students will need orientation and advising and help with financial aid and so will flood into our student center by the hundreds, facing long wait times and frazzled staff.

In another building, on the other side of campus, the academic deans are working on deciding which low-enrollment classes will get cut in a few days. They are waiting until the very last possible minute to let the last third of our incoming class get registered, which means that there will be adjuncts who find out they are unemployed a day, maybe two, before they were scheduled to teach.

Many of our instructors will plan to wait to actually start covering course content until the second or third class session, knowing that there are significant numbers of students who won’t get registered until five or more days after the semester begins. Since we don’t have mandatory placement and our online registration system doesn’t enforce prerequisites some instructors will, instead of beginning to cover content, spend the first few sessions trying to convince underprepared students to drop their class and take the developmental or introductory course they are actually ready for.

Some of our students will sign up for classes but will not have books for a month while they wait for financial aid to process. Some of our students will sign up for classes the day before the semester starts and will miss the first week entirely as they work to find childcare or adjust their work schedules or figure out the bus schedule to get to school.

This is the time of year when, as an administrator of a community college that is committed to providing access, especially to underserved populations, I can’t help but wonder if we are doing more harm than good. When we have taken the charge to provide access to mean that we shouldn’t have any real restrictions on how a student begins their college career, are we really providing opportunity or are we setting our most vulnerable students up to fail?

In the name of access, we and our community college peers across the country (I know that we are not unique in this discussion) have no deadlines for application or financial aid. We make students take assessment tests but then allow them to self-select into whatever classes they wish to take. We let brand-new students, many of whom are first-generation and in need of academic remediation, sign up for classes that have already met two or three times.

We worry over our rising student loan default numbers. We struggle to improve our retention and completion rates and yet we have created a system that makes it O.K. for college to be a last-minute decision, where our most at-risk students start out behind and many never catch up. We force our professors to take students who will be seriously behind on their first day in class, and who will either sidetrack the instructor or fall more behind. Instructors, especially in our core classes, must balance trying to meet the course objectives while also providing in-class remediation for underprepared students.

Our internal data show that there is a strong correlation between late enrollment and academic failure. The vast majority of our students who come to us in late August will be gone well before the end of the semester, many having student loans that will eventually become delinquent. And yet we continue to have practices that are not in the best interest of either the student or the institution.

I propose that it is time to change how we think about access at community colleges. It is time for:

  • Application and enrollment deadlines that ensure a student has enough time to get financial aid and payment plans in place before the semester begins. We need to have deadlines in place so a student knows that being successful requires planning and some time getting his or her life organized to be a student. A student who misses the deadline for enrollment isn’t told "no," they are told "next semester."
  • Mandatory orientation for all new students. We have a moral obligation to ensure that students have been informed of the institutions' expectations, policies and practices before students try to begin navigating our increasingly large bureaucracies.
  • Required placement and advising prior to the first semester of enrollment. Students should start knowing what they’ll need to graduate, what classes they are truly ready for and what their academic plan will be.

Ultimately, it is time for bold leadership that is willing to begin to reframe what access should mean and is willing to put in place policies that might result in some initial enrollment declines in the hopes of better-prepared students in the long term.

There are, literally, a thousand students who will see an adviser in the next week at my college who are, according to our own data, unlikely to succeed, and I can’t help but think we are at least partially responsible for their failure. Something must change.

The author requested anonymity because her bosses at her community college strongly disagree with these ideas, and she doesn't have tenure.

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