Missed Connections

March 29, 2010

Contradictions abound in the world of incoming community college students.

Most say they feel welcome at their institutions, but few receive information during orientation that is critical to their success. Most say they have the motivation and skills it takes to succeed, but these same students quickly adopt behaviors that are detrimental to their performance in the classroom. Most meet with academic advisers, but they do not always outline their academic goals and develop plans to accomplish them during these meetings.

Released today, the latest Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) chronicles these missed connections and attempts to show community college educators how to mend them. The assessment 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 first-time community college students, asking them questions about their experience after three weeks of instruction.

This is the first national administration of the survey, and it features data from more than 50,000 students from 120 community colleges in 31 states. As with CCSSE, participating institutions are graded on six benchmarks that show how they compare to national norms and other institutions of their choosing. The benchmarks are “early connections, high expectations and aspirations, clear academic plan and pathway, effective track to college readiness, engaged learning, and academic and social support network.”

This year’s survey finds that most institutions are doing a good job rolling out the welcome mat during orientation. Almost three-quarters of students agreed or strongly agreed “that they felt welcome the first time they came to their college.” Beyond the hospitable air, however, students did not find much substance. Just under half of them agreed or strongly agreed “that their college provided them with adequate information about financial assistance” and “that at least one college staff member (other than an instructor) learned their names.” Also, less than a quarter reported that a specific adviser was assigned to them “so they could see that person each time they needed information or assistance.”

Learning from prior SENSE results of this nature, Kilgore College, in Texas, “began redesigning student orientation after reviewing unenthusiastic student evaluations.” The report accompanying this year’s survey results notes that Kilgore abandoned plans to introduce an online-only orientation in favor of a “high-touch orientation.” Kilgore staff members conducted orientation sessions in small groups of 25 students and gave their personal contact information and that of student volunteers to these newcomers.

Once students hit the classrooms, they have high hopes for success, but their instructors do not hold them to this high standard. Ninety percent of students agreed or strongly agreed “that they have the motivation to do what it takes to succeed in college,” and comparable percentages also agreed or strongly agreed “that the instructors at their colleges want them to succeed.” Still, a quarter of students reported “that they did not turn in an assignment at least once” and reported “skipping a class one or more times.” Also, a third of students said they “turned in an assignment late at least once.”

Since these are bad habits to develop -- particularly in the first three weeks -- some colleges have put a premium on class attendance. The report notes that Linn State Technical College, in Missouri, has added “an attendance percentage and a job-readiness work ethic score” for each class on a student’s transcript beside their grades.

The survey results show that, much like orientation, the advising process suffers from a series of missed opportunities. Though 70 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed “that an adviser helped them identify the courses they needed to take during their first semester/quarter” and 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed “that an adviser helped them select a course of study, program or major,” few received much more help in planning their future. Almost a third disagreed or strongly disagreed “that an adviser helped them set academic goals and create a plan for achieving them,” and nearly half disagreed or strongly disagreed “that a college staff member talked with them about their commitments outside of school to help them figure out how many courses to take.”

This approach turns off many students, the report finds.

"[My adviser] basically just gave me a paper with the core-curriculum and said, ‘Pick the ones that you want to take,’ ” said an anonymous student quoted in one of the report’s focus groups. “That wasn’t very helpful because if I knew what classes to take, I would just get it done on my own.”

The full survey report chronicles numerous other contradictions and missed connections with first-time community college students. Among the easiest to remedy, 87 percent of students report “that they were required to take a placement test to assess their skills before they could register for classes” but only 81 percent of those who were required to take that test said “that their college also required them to enroll in classes indicated by their placement test scores during the first semester/quarter.”

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