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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 September 20 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Reaching Out To the College Capable

 

Photo courtesy South Texas College

Javier Arredondo, left, coordinator of veterans affairs at South Texas College, offers some advice at the college’s First-Year Connection program. The mandatory orientation session is open to students and their families.

C  O  V  E  R      S  T  O  R  Y

Reaching Out To the College Capable

Colleges Plot Pathways for Growing Ranks Of Hispanic Students

By Paul Bradley

It’s not just the prospect of a 360-student caseload that makes the task of finding counselors for the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program at Northern Virginia Community College so difficult.

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It’s not solely the fact that the community college positions are 12-month jobs but pay about the same as a 10-month K-12 counseling job, said program director Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon.

The real challenge, said Hilker-Balkissoon, is finding just the right person who possesses all the qualities to fill a job that has become the critical linchpin of a promising effort to help underprepared, at-risk students — especially the fast-growing Latino student population — earn a college degree.

To make the Pathway program a success, counselors need loads of energy, an approachable demeanor, competency in counseling, a willingness to work in teams and an unswerving dedication to serving students whose needs are real and often complex. Hilker-Balkissoon has been known to keep positions open for six months or more waiting for the right candidate.

“We work really hard to find counselors who can work a large caseload, and a caseload that has a lot of needs,” she said.

The counselors, Hilker-Balkissoon said, are essential to the success of the Pathway program, which was launched in 2005 and provides structured support to students as they make their way from high school to community college to a four-year university. It has won praise from groups such as the New America Foundation and Excelencia in Education.

Of the 3,000 students enrolled in the Pathway program, 45 percent are of Hispanic origin, even though Hispanics make up only 14 percent of the school’s overall enrollment.

Such programs are taking on added importance as community colleges strive to make good on President Obama’s mandate to graduate an additional 5 million students by the year 2020. Policy makers agree that Obama’s goal will remain out of reach unless colleges do a better job of retaining and graduating more Hispanic students.

Demographic Trends

Hispanic students will make up about one-quarter of the nation’s college-aged population by the year 2025. Given that demographic trend, boosting the number of college graduates will require policies and programs that focus on Hispanic students and young adults in general.

Excelencia in Education, a non-profit group that works to accelerate Latino success in higher education, recently launched a national initiative to boost Hispanic college graduation rates. The group has enlisted 50 organizations to propel the effort, and they include the American Council on Education, the National Governor’s Association, the National Council of La Raza and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

“President Obama’s degree-completion goals are unattainable without improving Latino success,” Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education, said in a news release. “We are not a population on the margin — we’re a significant part of this country and the country’s future depends on the ability of our educational system to accept this reality.”

Santiago said many colleges must do more to serve Latino students and make their academic success a top priority.

“The majority of Latino graduates are a product of completion by chance, not completion by design,” said Santiago. “Often, students are told they are the ones who have to change, when in fact the colleges themselves need to adapt as well.”

The gaps between the educational achievement of Latino students and their peers are wide and persistent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 19 percent of Hispanics in the United States had earned an associate degree or higher in 2008, compared to 59 percent of Asians, 39 percent of whites, and 28 percent of blacks.

According to an analysis of 2008 Census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 28 percent of college-age Latinos are enrolled in college, compared with 45 percent of whites, 64 percent of Asians and 34 percent of blacks.

The reasons for the gaps have been well-documented. Many Hispanic students arrive at college with limited financial resources and demanding family and work obligations. They come from crowded, dysfunctional high schools that have left them ill-prepared for college-level work. Many are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and their families have little experience with higher education.

For many Latino students, community colleges remain the most practical and popular point of entry into the higher education system. They are close to home, less costly and have a history of serving students outside of the higher education mainstream.

Moving the Needle

“Focusing on Latinos is really a reflection of the mission of community colleges,” said Anne M. Kress, president of Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. “As we keep the doors open, we need to serve this group. If we are going to move the needle in terms of college graduation, we need to assist this group.”

The challenges facing community colleges are daunting. A paper by the New American Foundation said “community colleges operate in state policy environments that do little to encourage or reward success. On average, per-student funding at community colleges is less than half that at four-year research universities. There are limited quality controls: community colleges are neither rewarded for success nor penalized for failure. Few studies exist about community colleges and their effectiveness. Even basic information on ‘what works’ is hard to come by.”

Against that backdrop, colleges like Monroe and NOVA are devising their own programs to close the gaps between underserved students and their peers. The programs target students who might have undistinguished academic records, but are considered capable of doing college work.

“These are students who are academically capable, but have non-academic issues that prevent them from getting to college and succeeding,” Hilker-Balkissoon said. “The most pressing barrier is usually the financial one. But there are quite a few others. So we work closely with the students to identify what they are.”

At the center of the Pathway to Baccalaureate program is a case-management approach which relies on strong ties between students and counselors, Hilker-Balkissoon said. The counselors help students in everything from applying for financial aid to honing test-taking skills.

“By maintaining a strong relationship with a counselor, the students are maintaining a strong relationship with the college,” Hilker-Balkissoon said. “The relationship with the counselor is really essential to the success of the program.”

The NOVA program works like this: the program sends transition counselors to nearly 40 high schools which are partners in the program. Recruits must express a desire to graduate both from NOVA and a four-year college.

Once in the program, the students get to know their counselors and their peers through one-on-one meetings, pizza parties and trips to NOVA and the campus of George Mason University. The counselors help students navigate the enrollment process, apply for financial aid and take placement tests.

Once enrolled in NOVA, the students take a College Success Class, such as how to take notes and manage their time. They also meet with a retention counselor who helps them deal with academic and personal challenges.

Students begin the transition to a four-year college of their choice while still enrolled at NOVA. Students with a 2.5 GPA are guaranteed admission to George Mason University.

Managing the Journey

What distinguishes the program is the fact that NOVA manages a student’s journey through higher education from high school to a four-year college. NOVA has forged partnerships with more than 30 high schools, and funding for the program is shared by all the stakeholders.

Monroe employs a peer mentoring approach in its Doorway to Success program, which is aimed at preventing young Hispanic and African American males from dropping or flunking out after their first year of college. The program has resulted in a 6 percent increase in the year-to-year retention rate for the 1,150 students enrolled in the program.

“I think that suggests we are doing something right,” Kress said. “I think it’s a wraparound approach for student services. The key to making it work is the personalization of services. It’s about keeping students engaged in their own educations.”

Kress believes the program can be easily replicated by other colleges. The financial investment is minimal, she said. Monroe recently received a $50,000 grant from Excelencia in Education to expand the program.

“What we’re doing is not a particularly new idea,” she said. “You are giving students a roadmap to success and placing them in learning communities so they can travel together. But it’s not happenstance. It is very mindful and very thoughtful. It’s a series of steps that are carefully aligned. It really has to be intentional.”

Latino students, in particular, seem to respond to the
case management approach, Hilker-Balkissoon said, in part because of the close family ties that characterize Hispanic culture. But the approach also puts a premium on earning the trust of students and their families, something that requires aggressive outreach.

“We worked very hard to reach out to the community,” Hilker-Balkissoon said. “We went to community meetings, and made sure the presentations were in Spanish. We tried to go beyond school counseling sessions. We think that by working with families outside the school systems, we are able to build relationships.”

The program appears to be succeeding in improving retention rates and academic achievement. In the 2007-08 cohort, for example, the annual retention rate was 75.4 percent, compared to 65.4 percent for students not enrolled in the program. More than 69 percent of Pathway students had a GPA greater than 2.0, compared to 61.6 percent of students in the comparison group.

Building sturdy relationships between students, their families and their colleges is also the thinking behind a novel student retention program at South Texas College, a school which has a Latino enrollment in excess of 90 percent.

The First-Year Connection program at STC is in its third year of offering a combined student and family orientation program. The mandatory program aims to engage entire families in the education of a student through orientation sessions intended to be both entertaining and informative.

“When we came up with the idea, orientation was basically registration. We were not doing anything to engage the student,” said Mike Shannon, interim associate dean for student life. “There really was a void that needed to be filled. We wanted to build a sense of community and make students more comfortable. We wanted to put them in touch with someone they could talk to.”

This fall, 3,202 people attended the session, including 2,264 students and 938 family members. Topics included “things I wish I knew when I was a freshman” and a breakout session for parents focusing on the rigors of college and how parents can stay involved in their child’s education. Students are also given a student planner which details much of the information presented during the First-Year Connection session.

Juan Mejia, vice president for academic affairs, said the First-Year Connection sessions are designed to welcome the students to college, remove potential obstacles and smooth their path to academic success.

“We’ve got a strong partnership between academic affairs and student affairs,” he said. “We all believe the obstacles students encounter should not be in student affairs. The rigor and the challenges should come in the classroom.”

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