At many community colleges, the ratio of students to academic counselors is 1,000 to 1. Likewise, at many community colleges, retention and graduation rates lag what policy makers and educators would like to see. A new study  suggests not only a relationship between those two facts, but the need for long-term, intense counseling that may not come cheap.
The study, by MDRC, is based on an experiment at Lorain County Community College and Owens Community College, both in Ohio, in which control groups were used to try to measure the impact of counseling. While the students in the control group were free try to see counselors as much as they wanted, they had the typical ratios of students to counselors.
Students in the “Opening Doors” program, however, were assigned to a pool of counselors that effectively reduced the ratio of students to counselors to 81 to 1 at Lorain and 157 to 1 at Owens. As an additional incentive to see those counselors, the program provided a small stipend -- $150 a semester – that was paid in two installments, after counseling sessions. Students could use the sessions to discuss academic or other issues and counselors tried to identify deadlines and various issues that were key for students to advance in their programs. The program lasted only two semesters.
- Registration rates were up by second semester, with 65.3 percent of students in the program registering for second semester courses, compared to 58.3 percent of the control group.
- As soon as the program ended, registration rates dropped, but for at least one semester after the program, there still was an apparent impact of the counseling, with 43.7 percent of those in the program registering for courses, compared to 40.0 percent of those who did not receive access to the counselors.
- During the second semester of the program, there was also a positive impact on credits completed, with those in the program completing an average of 9.7 credits cumulatively, compared to 9.1 credits for the control group. The cumulative credit gain didn’t evaporate, but also didn’t grow, in the semesters after the program ended.
The authors of the study note that its relatively short duration of two semesters makes it difficult to know the long-term potential of such enhanced counseling. At the same time, the authors say that their results suggest that there could be real benefits – especially at a time when there is growing concern about completion rates at community colleges.
“Many who advocate for enhanced student services view them as an ongoing need, since students continue to face barriers to success,” the authors write. “They would argue that two semesters of enhanced services is not sufficient, and that in order for enhanced student services to lead to sustained impacts, program efforts must be sustained.”
While the study notes that adding to academic counseling could be costly, it also notes other costs and data  suggesting that many students at community colleges don't know about or make use of the counseling available, contributing to the low retention rates everyone is criticizing.