Reorienting Themselves

Some community colleges move substantial portions of new student orientations online to maximize efficiency; others push face-to-face programs to make process more personal. Is there a happy medium?
August 19, 2009

As community college enrollments soar again this year, many officials are debating whether their new student orientation programs should stay face-to-face affairs or move primarily online.

For some institutions, like Seminole Community College, in Sanford, Fla., traditional general information sessions on the campus were getting so large and impersonal that many students complained they were missing essential steps in the registration processes.

“Students kept on telling us that they were overwhelmed and that they were just receiving too much information at one time,” said Pamela Mennechey, director of admissions and recruiting at Seminole. “We had large group information sessions on the same day as academic advising and general registration time. I always review feedback of our orientation, and many students just said it was too much paperwork for them to handle.”

About four years ago, the institution ditched the larger general information sessions for what officials there say is a more-intimate online orientation program. Though this initially covered many topics typically addressed in the face-to-face meetings – such as informing students about extracurricular activities and college safety procedure -- it did not make the day-to-day work of registration and advising much easier. That is, until this year, when the two-year college further tweaked the process.

Seminole’s new online orientation allows first-time students to access and confirm their individual academic and financial records in real time. If a student has not properly submitted proof of in-state residency, for instance, he or she will be notified during the interactive online orientation and given instructions on how to submit the proper paperwork and why it is important. In addition, a student can see whether his or her prior institution has submitted a transcript to the college, and if all of the appropriate financial aid information has been received.

“This student-specific orientation method really helps,” Mennechey said. “If you’re missing test scores, residency documents or what have you, you’ll know right away. We used to send out a large packet of printed materials outlining these things, but we couldn’t confirm receipt of any documentation. Some students even told us, ‘Oh, gosh. I’ve lost that one form.’ New students sometimes need hand-holding, and this is a great way to do so.”

The online orientation has eliminated the printing and distribution of about 15 documents from the college and a number of phone campaigns. This alone, Mennechey said, has saved the college around $18,000. But, despite the push to move more of its orientation online, there are certain aspects of the process that remain face-to-face.

Once a student has completed the online program, he or she gets a formal “to do” list outlining what documentation the college still requires, and the student must also schedule a face-to-face meeting with his or her adviser prior to selecting classes.

“Our advisers now have two days to review and look at students’ test scores, their prospective major and everything else they say on their application,” Mennechey said. “They can now do some advanced planning for those students’ first term. Before we introduced the online program, advisers had to review students’ documents for the first time with them present and had to figure out a plan as they went along. This provides more flexibility.”

Advisers still deal with some of their students’ harder questions, such as potential remedial placement and financial aid details, face to face. Mennechey said those issues are sometimes too difficult for students to understand solely via an online program.

Otherwise, she believes the college’s online orientation has improved its relationship with its students, enriching the experience they have with their advisers and helping these officials gain more information about their students prior to meeting them in person.

Focusing on Face-to-Face

Though not completely averse to online initiatives like these, some two-year institutions, such as Harper College, in Palatine, Ill., are molding their face-to-face orientation programs to resemble those on four-year, residential campuses. Officials there believe these hands-on sessions allow them to reinforce lessons and key values for students in a way that a primarily online orientation cannot.

But Harper’s orientation is not completely computer-free. Students still complete a brief online program to prep them for the face-to-face meeting days, which are held with groups of their peers.

“We’re trying to slowly integrate online items into our orientation, but in a strategic way that doesn’t minimize interaction with other students and faculty and is not a substitute for that face-to-face aspect,” said Vicki Atkinson, director of new student programs and retention at Harper. “When we get away from that personal touch, we can’t build a community among community college students. For some, the preference would be to do everything online, but if we allow that, then we run the risk of abandoning the opportunity to pull them together as individuals.”

Upon arriving on campus, Harper students complete all of the necessary placement tests and skills assessment under the supervision of college officials. The temptation, Atkinson said, has been for the college to move this online. She added that it has remained a face-to-face task out of a worry that an online-only assessment might be a “wasted testing opportunity” for a student who does not understand the importance of proper placement.

Unlike at Seminole, the essential paperwork of admissions -- such as financial aid forms, residency documents and transcripts -- is still primarily handled in person. Officials argue, however, that this actually might be helpful.

“What we can do when we’re on campus is offer some type of contextualization when we take care of the business-like things we have to do,” Atkinson said. “We can say why they’re important. Sometimes, for students, it carries so much more significance if we can explain how the busywork of admissions and enrollment is critical to their success.”

Among the aspects of Harper’s orientation that its officials believe make it similar to that of a four-year institution is that current students play a key role in running new student programs.

“We feel very strongly that, on a commuter campus where were don’t have residence halls, these student orientation leaders can establish some relevancy with new students in a way that strong, authority types often cannot,” Atkinson said. “Sometimes essential messages from us come off as sounding trite and ignorable. It’s also good for them to establish familiar faces that they’ll encounter throughout their time here. We value that opportunity to personalize our orientation.”

In addition, Harper is offering even more face-to-face orientation time for students' parents. Instead of having a single catch-all meeting for parents only -- which, when they had it, was poorly attended -- the college has hosted five well-attended events throughout the summer leading up to the fall semester and coinciding with some student orientation days.

As more of their community college students are of traditional college age and could have attended a four-year institution, Harper officials are finding that more parents want to have face-to-face time with them to learn how to support their stay-at-home students.

“This is our first summer doing it this way, and we’ve already doubled our attendance from last year’s parent orientation,” said Sheryl Otto, associate vice present for student affairs at Harper. “It’s certainly an improvement and provides more opportunities for parents to get in sync with their children. Most of them are more engaged in a way they haven’t been before.”

Moving forward, Harper officials hope to retain large portions of their orientation in face-to-face sessions. Still, they acknowledge that an online component, similar to what Seminole is offering, is becoming more and more essential.

“We’re always trying to find the mix between high touch and high-tech,” Otto said. “We need to find ways to increase convenience for our students and get information into their hands, but we also need to continue to find a way to balance that with on-campus engagement experiences.”


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