Not Getting Ahead

"High risk" community college students are more engaged than their "low risk" peers, but still fall behind, survey finds.
November 14, 2005

A majority of community college students typically described as "high risk" – including minority students, first-generation students, and those without good academic preparation -- are working harder both inside and outside of class, but achieving lower results. That’s a key finding from this year’s Community College Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

In an analysis of the 133,281 students from 257 colleges in 38 states who took the survey, researchers found that "high risk" students are more likely to come to class prepared, they interact more frequently with instructors outside of class and they tend to use support services more often. Researchers label them “engaged” students.  

However, many of these students had "lower aspirations" -- not totally expecting to graduate, for example -- in comparison to their "low risk" counterparts, according to the survey. On average, minority students, academically unprepared students and low-income students also received lower grades and tended to drop out more frequently. Studies show that only about half of all community college students return to college for a second year of study.

"The reason that these students are statistically at high risk is that they’re starting school behind the starting gate,” says Kay McClenney, director of the survey.  “So, they have to run further and run faster -- working harder, putting out more effort -- in order even to finish the race, much less to finish first.”

S. Tomeka Swan, chair of the Cecil Community College Retention Committee and director of advising with the college says that she often sees this situation play out for single parents who are trying to raise a family while getting a higher education. "They definitely want to succeed," she says. "I see them trying to get their development and prerequisites out of the way quickly."

Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, notes that a large percentage of his college’s population is composed of low-wage earning immigrants.  "They tend to work one or two part-time jobs,” he says.  “But at the same time, they take extra advantage of our counselors, advisors, librarians and tutorials.”

“It’s a victory that these kinds of students are so engaged, but at the same time we have an irony that they’re achieving lower results,” says McClenney, an adjunct faculty member in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Templin, for one, isn’t surprised: “Community college students tend to have complicated lives beyond going to school,” he says.  “They’re working, have families and have a fragile socioeconomic profile -- all of which complicates their ability to succeed.”

According to the survey’s researchers, it’s important for colleges to design effective remediation strategies in order to take advantage of the engagement of these students. “Students who benefit from effective developmental education have the opportunity to be successful in subsequent college studies -- an opportunity that would not exist without developmental education,” according to the report. “[D]evelopmental education levels the playing field.”

But shouldn’t elementary and secondary schools be doing a good enough job so that certain groups of students aren’t starting college on uneven footing? “Sure, I don’t think there’s a person in American who doesn’t think that we’re not doing as well in our K-12 public school system by our high-risk students that we should be,” says McClenney. “But, once the students are in college, they’re ours. It’s really important for colleges to accept responsibility for them. Finger-pointing isn’t going to get the job done for America.”

Researchers also say that most colleges that participate in survey are using results to try to improve their students’ experiences.

At Cecil Community College, educators have put on emphasis on retention efforts. Through an online academic monitoring system, explains Swan, faculty members can track student attendance and performance. Retention letters, which detail campus options for academic improvement, and support workshops are offered to students who are performing below par. “We want to make sure all of our students are on target,” says Swan.

Templin says that at Northern Virginia Community College, which participated in the survey in 2004 and 2005, “we’re trying to be more strategic in how we structure our support services.

“We found that students were indicating that financial aid and counseling services were physically not where they need to be,” notes Templin. “So, we reorganized our student services program so that students can come to one location and receive a whole suite of services.”

“Community colleges are working hard on the large- and small- scale,” assesses McClenney. “The whole point of the survey is to get colleges to think about these issues and see what can be done to fix them.”

Survey researchers offer more suggestions for aiding specific high-risk students, including:

  • Improving outcomes for first-generation students by making academic and career counseling mandatory.
  • Encouraging goal-setting for older female students that helps them get better grades as a result of their intensive study efforts
  • Building on black men’s out-of-classroom interests, connecting interests to the classroom and engaging them more effectively in the earliest weeks of college.
  • Improving academic advising and skill labs that are integrated into course designs.



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