Figuring Out Freshmen

New report suggests community colleges need to engage and motivate incoming students more within their first few weeks.
March 18, 2009

A new report suggests that many incoming community college students do not take advantage of valuable student resources simply because they are not aware of them. It argues that two-year institutions need to do a better job of personally assisting new students, especially within the "make or break" time period of their first few weeks.

The latest findings from the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) were released today. The national assessment tool was launched in 2007 by the same group at the University of Texas at Austin that releases the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). Unlike that study, however, SENSE surveys only incoming community college students, asking them questions about their academic experience after the first three weeks of their initial semester. As the study is only in the field-testing stage, it features data from a limited sphere of 57,547 students from 89 community colleges around the country.

The survey asks questions within six subjects or “design principles,” covering topics such as personal connections with instructors and awareness of important student services. Answers to these questions are compiled and provided to the participating institutions. The data for individual institutions and in aggregate are also available online for the general public.

Kay McClenney, CCSSE's director and head of the department of educational administration at the University of Texas at Austin, said the survey’s data show the importance of the first weeks of a student’s college career. By analyzing student engagement at this point, she said community college administrators and instructors can make valuable changes to their approaches, applying proven techniques that make a difference in their students' academic outcome.

Most of the surveyed students reported that they “felt welcome” the first time they arrived on campus and that they were able to get the information they needed to register for class. Still, 76 percent of them noted that there was not a “specific person” designated for them to see if they “needed information or assistance.” The report suggests that more colleges should adopt personalized advising programs, matching students with mentors earlier.

Within this same short time frame, the report notes that most students adopt a number of bad habits that continue to plague them throughout their college career. For example, 32 percent of incoming students reported that they “turned in at least one assignment late.” Twenty-five percent said they “failed to turn in one or more assignment,” 47 percent said they “came to class unprepared” and 29 percent said they skipped class.

“Students do these things, and there are often no consequences,” said McClenney, noting that she believes students will respond to stricter guidelines. “Most of the time, nobody notices that they stop coming to class. If there are no consequences for bad behavior, it’ll continue.”

The report suggests that instructors may be to blame for some of this delinquent behavior. Only a quarter of students “strongly agree” that their instructors “clearly explained the academic and student support services at the college.” The report argues that, aside from spotlighting these services, instructors should also make clear their expectations for students and set them high. Indicative of a lack in this area, just over half of the surveyed students “strongly agree” that the faculty at their college wants them to succeed.

“There are still a fair number of people at community colleges who say, ‘We provide the services and the counseling. Now, it’s up to the students to take advantage of them,’ ” McClenney said. “In that world, it’s sink or swim. These people argue that if students don’t make the right choices, they have the right to fail.”

This philosophy, McClenney argues, is not only old hat but fundamentally harmful to students who need assistance. As most community college students are the first generation in their families to go to college, she said, they are likely to be unaware of student services such as academic advising or financial aid counseling. For example, 29 percent of students said they did not know their college offered the former and 27 percent the latter. Trips to make use of these services, McClenney argued, should be mandatory for the good of these students.

“If you know these things work and you make them optional, then you’re not exercising your responsibility as an educator,” McClenney said.

Once students get help outside the classroom, the report argues that they need to work with advisers to establish a path with benchmarks along the way to their academic goal. Though 76 percent of students “agree” or “strongly agree” that “an adviser helped them select courses,” only 39 percent of them “agree” or “strongly agree” that that same adviser “helped them to set academic goals and to create a plan for achieving them.” Also, only 27 percent of students “agree” or “strongly agree” that someone spoke to them about their outside obligations to work and family when helping them consider which courses to take.

“Academic planning is the most important service to students,” said McClenney, citing data from last year’s CCSSE report. “I know that three weeks into the semester, when you have 4,000 students who need help fixing their schedules, it’s hard to get this type of planning. But, some colleges are able to figure out how to do this. Students need to have a road map that has milestones that show them the way from where they are to some better, different place down the road. Honestly, it’s not about the courses, it’s about the goal.”

Most new students need extra help before they can set out on that journey. According to national figures, nearly 63 percent of all community college students require some type of remediation before they can begin their coursework. Nonetheless, about 11 percent of surveyed students reported that their college did not require them to take this remedial coursework in their first semester.

The report also suggests that most community colleges are not teaching their students in engaging and experimental ways. Eighty-five percent of students said they had never “participated in a required study group outside of class,” 75 percent of them said they were not enrolled in a “student success course” and 96 percent of them said they were not enrolled in a “learning community.”

“We’re seeing major changes in the culture of teaching and learning,” said McClenney, encouraging community college instructors to require that their students work with their classmates more often. “Some teachers need to unlearn their bad habits. No one should be lecturing for an hour. That’s an absolute no-no.”

SENSE will be nationally administered to a much larger sample this fall. A more comprehensive report will follow next year.


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