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2013 November 25 - 12:00 am

POV: To Boost Student Success, Make Engagement Inescapable

Change — and lots of it — is the inescapable reality for community colleges, as they contend with volatile enrollment, increasing student diversity, rapid technological developments, escalating demands for accountability, and all too often, public disinvestment in postsecondary education. Yet, even these challenges pale in comparison to larger, though related, societal issues: a diminishing middle class, declining personal income, loss of standing relative to other countries in terms of the educational attainment level of younger Americans. In these conditions, we see the American dream at risk: for the first time in our nation’s history, we are breaking that intergenerational compact — the promise that each generation will be better off than the one that came before.

Amidst these challenges, community colleges are responding to calls for heightened performance, particularly as reflected in successful and equitable outcomes for students. The 2012 report from the American Association of Community College’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, Reclaiming the American Dream, called on colleges to produce dramatic improvements in college readiness and equally substantial increases in completion of college credentials. The future health of the economy and the democracy rests in significant part on achieving gains in educational attainment. And the heavy lifting in that work rests largely with community colleges.

The question is, of course, how do we do that? While there is still much to be learned, through continuing evaluation and research at both the national and institutional levels, the truth is that we know more about effective educational practice than we are currently doing.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement recently released a new report, “A Matter of Degrees — Engaging Practices, Engaging Students”, highlighting new evidence on high-impact practices in community colleges.
Building on other research, the work can help colleges target limited resources to educational approaches likely to produce improved outcomes for large numbers of students.

Key findings from the report may be summarized most simply in this way: A dozen key educational policies and practices are identified as having high impact on student engagement in community colleges. Students’ participation in multiple structured high-impact experiences leads to increasingly higher levels of engagement. While growing numbers of institutions are offering such experiences, only small numbers of colleges require them. As a telling consequence, far too few students are participating in them.

“A Matter of Degrees” focuses on selected educational practices for which there is emerging evidence of effectiveness from various sources. Particular attention is given to notable relationships between students’ participation in any given practice and their levels of engagement in college. Findings confirm that participation in any of twelve such practices is associated with higher benchmark scores on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and/or the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE). The report also provides participation data on each practice from the perspectives of students, faculty, and institutions.

While presenting national data, the report also offers a framework for colleges to use in examining their own students’ educational experiences. Particularly compelling prompts for campus discussions are data illuminating apparent gaps between what students need and what colleges provide — and the further gaps between what colleges provide and what students actually experience. Illustrations from national data include:

A preponderant majority of community college students needs academic support in order to successfully progress to and through college-level work. Student participation in tutoring is associated with notably higher engagement on four out of five CCSSE benchmarks. Nearly all (99 percent) of the more than 400 colleges responding to the Community College Institutional Survey (CCIS) offer tutoring; yet just over a quarter of survey respondents report that they participate in the service.

Student participation in a learning community has a notably positive relationship with three CCSSE benchmarks — active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, and support for learners — and the SENSE engaged learning benchmark. More than half of responding colleges (54 percent) offer learning communities, but only 12% of CCSSE respondents and 5 percent of SENSE respondents had this experience during their first term in college.Student participation in supplemental instruction has a notably positive relationship with all five CCSSE benchmarks and the SENSE early connections benchmark. While 61 percent of CCIS colleges offer supplemental instruction, just 20 percent of CCSSE respondents and 31% of SENSE respondents participate.

In addition to the notable impacts on engagement associated with students’ participation in each of the identified high-impact practices, the center examined effects when students participate in multiple practices categorized as “structured group learning experiences:” college orientation, accelerated developmental education, student success courses, learning communities, and first-year experience programs. Results indicate that engagement levels consistently rise in relationship to the number of structured group learning experiences in which students participate.

Despite those positive effects, data also show that 19 percent of entering students do not participate in any of the structured group learning experiences. Just over a third (37 percent) of CCSSE respondents and 41 percent of SENSE respondents participate in more than one.

Results from this work should prompt substantive campus discussions about redesigning student experiences. A significant caveat for those discussions is this: improving college completion is not simply a matter of offering a collection of discrete programs and services. Attending to quality in both design and implementation is clearly essential. And the dramatically improved student outcomes community colleges seek can be achieved only by ensuring that much larger numbers of students participate in educational experiences that weave high-impact practices into coherent pathways leading to postsecondary credentials.

Campus discussions and strategy development should engage a wide array of constituent groups. As set forth in A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students, questions to frame those discussions include:

Do we regularly review and fully understand the data describing students’ current experiences at our college — data about student engagement, learning, progress, and attainment?

What percentages of students at our college participate in each of the identified high-impact practices? What are the target levels of participation?

What are the characteristics of students who participate — and of those who do not — in terms of enrollment status, day vs. evening enrollment, race/ethnicity, gender, age, etc.? In other words, which students have access to these experiences, and which students do not?

Do any particular groups of students appear to benefit from participation in one or more of these practices in disproportionately positive ways? Are there student groups at our college who do not experience those benefits?

What percentages of students at our college participate in multiple high-impact practices — a pattern that evidence suggests will further heighten their engagement levels and prospects for success?

How well are we incorporating evidence-based design principles into these experiences for students?

What are our plans and processes for ensuring quality of implementation and routinely evaluating the effectiveness of these practices?

What is the standard of evidence that would lead us to make certain experiences mandatory for some or all students?

How can we engage the college community in thinking about how high-impact practices can be integrated into clear, coherent, structured pathways for students?

Although the data referenced here are new, the community college field has been learning for more than a decade about the importance of student engagement and the emerging evidence of effective practice. Simply stated, we have yet more evidence that engagement matters — and that more engagement matters more. It really is a matter of degrees: degree attainment may hinge on the degree to which community colleges have the will to require broader student participation in high-impact practices, making student engagement inescapable.

Kay McClenney is director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practice, Engaging Students may be downloaded at http://www.ccsse.org/docs/Matter_of_Degrees_2_EFAHQR.pdf. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

It’s Your Turn: CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: What steps has your college taken to increase student engagement?
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