The Value of Intervention

Community colleges find that intense programs make a difference on retention and academic performance -- particularly for minority students.
May 30, 2006

Enrolling students in college really doesn't do anyone much good if they fail and drop out. When those students are low-income and/or minority students, the loss is particularly distressing to educators at community colleges that reach out to such students. Those are the ideas behind a growing movement in community colleges to find ways to help students -- even those with very poor high school preparation -- succeed.

In several intense sessions Monday at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, attendees traded promising ideas for doing so, and talked about the importance of staying focused on these issues. NISOD, which is part of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the largest gatherings in the year of community college faculty members and administrators -- and probably the largest gathering focused on teaching issues.

One of the ideas presented at the meeting, in Austin, demonstrated how a focused intervention program could have an impact on the academic success of black freshmen. The program -- created at Pellissippi State Technical and Community College, in Knoxville, Tenn. -- identifies students about to graduate from high school who plan to enroll at the college, and works with them to improve skills in a way that is having a notable impact on retention.

Leigh Anne Touzeau, director of admissions and records at Pellissippi State, said the need for a new approach was evident from data: 32 percent of new black students and only 11 percent of new white students are identified as having math skills that are so deficient that they will need three courses of remedial math just to be ready for an introductory college course. Another 27 percent of black students need two courses, compared to 23 percent of white students. (In contrast, 51 percent of white students need no remedial math, which is true of only 28 percent of black students.) Students who have to take a lot of remedial courses have poor graduation rates, so the lopsided statistics on remediation carry over to everything the college cares about in terms of educating a diverse group of students, Touzeau said.

The program Pellissippi State created identifies black students who will need remediation based first on their ACT scores and then on other diagnostic tests. During the May of their senior years in high school, the students are offered a spot in the program, through which they are taken to the main campus of the community college and receive 17.5 hours of intense instruction in areas where their skills are weak, 3 hours of personal tutoring, 2 hours of instruction in college survival skills, and a total of 5.5 hours of testing (at the beginning and end of the program). All of the instruction takes place over a two-week period, a few hours a day, and plenty of free pizza is provided, along with some social events at which the students could meet students from their neighborhoods who were succeeding at the college.

The results of the program have been striking in the two years since it was created: Of the participants, 85 percent gained at least one level -- meaning avoiding the need to take at least one remedial course they would have otherwise needed -- and 28 percent gained two levels. Of the developmental courses the students did take when they enrolled, the passage rate was 66 percent, compared to a normal passage rate for black students of 55 percent. And the fall to spring retention rate for the students is 76 percent, compared to 58 percent average for black freshmen. The college is now preparing to expand the program beyond black students to all who could benefit from it.

Touzeau said it was especially encouraging to see that many of the students could -- in a relatively short time period -- make real progress. She said that while many students were way behind in math, it was sometimes only a few concepts that were preventing a rapid advance in knowledge. By doing in-depth diagnostic testing and then focusing on those concepts, the college could have a big impact, she said. "A lot of this is the personal tutoring," she said. Not only is the education more effective, but a real message is sent to the student. "We're saying that if you look at people at individuals, they can succeed. People are used to getting pushed aside in large classes and not getting the help that they need."

While no other colleges represented in the audience in Austin had tried the Pellissippi State approach, the idea was met with considerable enthusiasm, and several people cited programs under consideration or recently started that share some of the same philosophical approach.

Justin M. Oliver, a mathematics instructor at Paul D. Camp Community College, in Virginia, said that his institution is finding that students who take remedial courses in math do better in introductory college math than do the students who pass the placement tests to avoid remediation. Oliver said he thought this was because the remedial program teaches students how to learn and focuses on the transition to college, along with providing rigorous instruction. "Instead of putting them right in the fire, they get some help first," he said.

At Midlands Technical College, in South Carolina, many educators were concerned about low retention rates, especially among black students. So the college decided to do a "retrospective transcript analysis" and it looked at students who did graduate and tried to identify patterns in their college experiences, according to Dorcas A. Kitchings, director of assessment, research and planning. The college found that of students who had taken a course in their first year on how to study and succeed in college, the average time to an associate degree was 4.7 years. For students who didn't take that course, the average time to degree was 7 years.

As Kitchings spoke, several in the audience talked about how they had seen similar positive impacts from teaching students how to learn. Kitchings said that her college is currently in the middle of an "active discussion" on whether to require the course. She said she can see lots of reasons to do so, but said many faculty members worry about adding course requirements, especially when they feel stretched to cover necessary ground in the limited time they have with students. Again, other audience members said that the same debates were going on at their campuses.

A general sense at the meeting was that whatever drawbacks may exist to starting more assertive intervention programs, community colleges need to try them. While officials expressed pride in their "open access" traditions, several spoke of the need to push students in directions that would help them succeed.

Cuyahoga Community College, in Ohio, is about to start block scheduling with about 100 students identified on placement tests as being among the most poorly prepared. The students will take three courses together, including a study skills course. Phyllis Dukes, an associate professor of counseling at the college, said she saw a similar motivation behind that effort and those being discussed elsewhere at the NISOD meeting: just assuming that poorly prepared students can succeed by themselves doesn't work.


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