Retention is the featured topic of many sessions at this week's annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. Two-year institutions, like many of their four-year counterparts, worry that too few of their students finish programs.
But amid all the sessions on retention, there was also a session in which the focus on retention was criticized as potentially destructive. It's not that speakers at this session are in favor of dropping out. But they argued that talk about retention bypasses professors, encourages low standards and -- perhaps most significantly -- doesn't accomplish much.
"The conversation about retention is stale. It's not motivating the people we need to motivate, especially the faculty, and it accepts as success a C- average and a heartbeat," said John N. Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College.  Gardner described a program, first started by his center to focus on four-year institutions, that is now working with community colleges to promote "foundations of excellence" for new students, rather than just trying to keep them enrolled.
A key to this approach is strong faculty involvement. Gardner said that professors will never get that excited about retention ("do we have professors of retention?" he asked), but academic excellence is something that will engage them. To that end, colleges involved in the effort create committees of professors and administrators to evaluate how well their institutions meet a series of "foundational dimensions"  of how they deal with first-year students.
These dimensions ask a series of questions about whether the college has identified factors that lead first-year students to succeed or fail, whether anyone is in charge of dealing with these factors, etc. Gardner said that the actual policy changes come from applying these dimensions. And some of those policy changes, he warned, will be difficult for many institutions.
For instance, he said that many community colleges have a "Statue of Liberty" approach to registration -- you are always welcome to register, no matter when you arrive. Such an approach certainly tells potential students that the college is welcoming, but Gardner asked if colleges are really doing students a favor when they are allowed to register for a course two or three weeks after it has started.
Community college are also too afraid to require students to attend orientation programs, Gardner said. They fear that such a requirement will discourage enrollments, but he said that failing to require students to attend such programs "ensures that you will lose students."
The academic questions colleges need to ask will vary by institution, he said. But colleges can start by asking which courses have the highest enrollments of first-year students, and in which courses first-year students are most likely to receive grades of D, W, F or I. The answers to those questions, he said, should give academic affairs officers a clear idea of where they should focus their efforts.
At many community colleges, those questions will lead to the same place, Gardner said: developmental mathematics, which he called the "quintessential academic experience" at many two-year institutions. Presidents and provosts who want to improve the academic experience of their students should start off every day asking what they can do to improve that course, Gardner said.
Some officials of colleges that are starting to use the "foundational" approach also offered their experiences at the meeting. L. Anthony Wise Jr., department head for liberal arts at Pellissippi State Technical Community College, in Tennessee, said that discussions at his campus are focusing on trying to create "common academic experiences" for first-year students, such as having students read the same book, so that there is more of a sense of people being in a program together.
But most of the new work being done as a result of focusing on first-year students, he said, is leading to a focus on non-academic issues. A variety of financial issues appear to be prompting many first-year students to either leave or falter, he said, so the college is looking at "intervention programs" to make them more effective.
Steady H. Moono, dean of student success at Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania, said that by using a "culture of evidence," colleges discover that first-year students aren't necessarily being served in ways that will encourage their academic development. Moono said that when college officials are asked questions about student success for first-year students, the answer frequently comes back "we do that for all students." The problem, Moono said, is that if some students are getting off to the wrong start in their first year, their needs may not be getting appropriate consideration.
"It's about intentionality" of a focus on first-year academic success, he said.
Attendees at the session seemed to have mixed reactions to the approach. Several said that they agreed with the flaws noted in an emphasis on retention. But some questioned how community colleges could adopt these ideas, especially given their mix of students. A student enrolling with the idea of finishing a certificate or degree program might accept requirements, one college official said, but what about the many students who are seeking just one course?
In an interview after the session, Karen A. Stout, president of Montgomery, said that the first-year approach was leading to a number of projects at her college. Based on a review of data, the college has identified 11 different cohorts of students at risk of poor performance or dropping out during their first year. The cohorts (some overlap) include characteristics like taking remedial courses, not having English as native language, and receiving financial aid. For each of those cohorts, she said, the college is studying what happens during the first three weeks of enrollment -- to look for encouraging and worrisome patterns.
College officials are also considering some key changes, such as requiring mid-term grades to be given in all courses. Such a requirement might help students recognize difficulties and work on them -- and might help professors realize which students might fail. At the same time, Stout said, requiring mid-term grades would be a shift to a greater emphasis on grades.
"There's an inherent tension," she said, between focusing on academic performance and the decentralized, welcoming traditions of community colleges. Stout said she expected the discussion over the possible requirement to divide many faculty members, but she said it was a conversation that the college needs to have.