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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 April 5 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: First Things First

      C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y     

First Things First
SENSE Report Gives Guidance
on Improving Outcomes for
Entering Students

By Paul Bradley

When it comes to working with entering students, the student services folks at Michigan’s Glen Oaks Community College are relentless. Or unyielding. Or dogged. Choose your own adjective.

Dennis McCarthy, the college’s dean of student and community services, has his own term for the college’s aggressive efforts to guide students through their critical first year.

“We’re fanatical,” he said. “We are really serious about it. It begins with our first contact with them. It’s a joint effort with student services and the academic departments.”

Glen Oaks students are told from their very first day on campus about what might be termed the “15 percent rule.” Adhering to the simple premise that students must attend class during those critical first days if they are to succeed down the line, students are advised that should they miss 15 percent of class time in any semester, the instructor has the authority to withdraw them from class.

It’s not a punitive approach, McCarthy said. The college is sensitive to the competing demands of its students, whether it’s looking after a family or working a job. But when a student won’t be in class, instructors and administrators want to know about it.

There’s more. During the first week of class, instructors submit the names of students who have missed class to student services so counselors can get in touch with them. If absences continue, the director of financial aid freezes financial aid until the situation improves.

During the third week of class, instructors submit the names of students to be contacted by the college’s chief academic officer to address attendance issues. Each student gets a letter outlining six alternatives, ranging from free tutoring to withdrawing from the class.

It’s a policy designed to get first-year students headed in the right direction.

“Well begun is half done,” McCarthy said. “If you don’t get off on the right foot, you’ll have trouble later on. The research shows that clearly.”

For their efforts to track, document and insist upon student attendance — for having high expectations of students — Glen Oaks was one of several community colleges cited in a new report issued by the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE).

New Benchmarks

Entitled “Benchmarking and Benchmarks: Effective Practice with Entering Students,” the report introduces six benchmarks colleges can use to help entering students. It attempts to show how colleges can establish benchmarks to evaluate and improve institutional performance and student success.

The survey, developed by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, builds on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), which since 2003 has provided colleges with national benchmarks for effective educational practice in community colleges.

The essence of the SENSE report is that entering students should be treated as a distinct cohort, something few have done in the past, said Angela Oriano-Darnall, assistant director of the survey. It is based on data from 50,327 students who participated in the survey during the fourth and fifth weeks of the 2009 fall academic term at 120 participating community colleges in 31 states.

“The SENSE benchmarks now help colleges focus on students’ experiences during the first critical weeks of college,” she said. “SENSE provides a more focused look at a particular area of concern.”

The report comes at a time when community colleges face daunting challenges as the nation struggles to emerge from the historic economic downturn. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that while 79 percent of community college students state that their goal is to earn an associate degree, fewer than half do so.

Nationally, about half of entering students drop out before their second year of college. Others stay in school, but struggle with developmental courses.

“Community colleges across the country are experiencing great influxes of entering students at a time of decreased financial support,” said Kay McClenney, CCSEE director. “‘Business as usual’ won’t work if we ever hope to address the unacceptably low retention rates among entering students.To put it bluntly, students can’t graduate if they don’t make it through the first term.”

Glen Oaks was singled out for setting high expectations and aspirations for its entering students, one of SENSE’s six benchmarks. The other five benchmarks are: forging early connections; devising a clear academic plan and pathway; assuring an effective track to college readiness; promoting engaged learning; and creating academic and social support networks.

A Yawning Gap

While the report found much to admire about the data-driven work being undertaken by community colleges around the country, it also uncovered some troubling data, such as the yawning gap between students’ aspirations upon entering college and their behavior once they get there. Students, the report found, can fall into bad habits very early in their academic careers.

For example, the survey found that 90 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they have the proper motivation it takes to succeed in college. Yet during the first three weeks of class, 24 percent reported that they did not turn in an assignment at least once; one-third reported they turned in an assignment late at least once; 43 percent said they came to class without completing readings or assignments at least once; and a quarter skipped class one or more times.

“None of these are behaviors most faculty members would associate with successful outcomes,” McClenney said. “What this gap suggests is the importance of discussion about two things: the first is faculty expectations of students — are they really high enough? — and the second is the evidence that community college students need to learn not just subject matter, but how to ‘do college.’”

The survey also found that significant numbers of students don’t interact with instructors or fellow students during the early weeks in college.

35 percent said they never discussed an assignment of grade with an instructor.

25 percent said they never asked for help from an instructor regarding questions or problems related to a class.

68 percent said they never worked with classmates outside of class on class projects or assignments.

Creating and promoting academic and social support networks — another of the benchmarks — is one way colleges can overcome those kinds of statistics. That’s what the Iowa Valley Community College District has done with its “Lunch and Learn” workshops, another initiative noted in the SENSE report.

Faced with an influx of workers returning to school in a wave of layoffs, the college sponsored five brownbag workshops on topics such as financial aid, student resources and preparation for final exams.

“It really is the learning community approach,” said Barb Klein, district dean of enrollment services. “Many of our new students had never graduated from high school, or never went to college. They arrived with a wide variety of backgrounds, and it seemed important to keep that group together. The lunches did that.”

Paying Dividends

The effort appears to be paying dividends. Of the 78 students who participated in the workshops in the spring, 73 enrolled for classes in the fall, Klein said. That’s a retention rate of 93 percent, a figure that was 18 percent higher than that of the general student population.

The connections that students created with faculty, administrators and fellow students were critically important, Klein said. Students know where to turn if they have a problem.

“If they know that someone cares about them, it makes a big difference,” Klein said. “It’s all about relationships.”

It’s also about the increasing willingness of community colleges to use data to guide their decision-making, McClenney said.

“The most positive development we see is that community colleges are becoming increasingly serious about using data to understand their entering students’ experiences and then to target improvements in college programs and services,” she said. “This reflects a genuine sea change in the way community colleges approach their work. SENSE is still very new to the field, and the fact that already 199 colleges have participated in the survey is in itself very encouraging.”

“We want to not just to help colleges collect data, but to help them learn how to use the data to improve outcomes for students.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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