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2014 March 3 - 12:00 am

POV: Access Without Support is Not Opportunity

Student Success

Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University

One can only applaud the recent proposal by the Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to eliminate tuition for the first two years of community college for all high school graduates. Like similar proposals in Mississippi and Oregon, it is argued that eliminating tuition would increase access to college for many low-income students who do not now attend. But while enrollments may increase, such proposals will do little to change the likelihood that more low-income students will complete their programs of study unless community colleges do more to support the students who enroll. This is not to say that colleges have not sought to do so. But simply doing more of what has been done in the past will not lead to the gains in completion among low-income youth to which we aspire and which an increasing number of states now expect of colleges as part of their funding models.

What should colleges do? First and foremost, they should focus their efforts on the classroom and enhancing student success in the classroom. More than anything else, classroom success is the building block upon which college completion is built, one course at a time over time. Lest we forget, the object of access and the hoped-for outcome of efforts to improve completion is not simply that more students complete their programs of study, but that they learn while doing so. It is also the case that a majority of low-income students work while in college and/or have obligations beyond the classroom that greatly restricts their time on campus. For many, if not most, the classroom is the only place on campus where they engage the institution, meet each other and the faculty, and engage in learning activities. If they fail to learn in those places, where will they learn the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future?

What then should colleges do, or at least do differently, to enhance classroom success? First, they should connect academic support to the classroom and ensure that it is contextualized to the specific demands of the classes in which students seek to learn and succeed. Contextualization of support promotes classroom success because it enables students to more easily apply the support they receive to the specific task of meeting the demands of the course. Strategies, such as supplemental instruction, basic skills linked courses, and learning communities where one or more courses provide support to the other courses in the learning community, are but several ways contextualization can be achieved. Another possibility, yet to be tapped, is the use of adaptive learning strategies. There is little reason why these cannot be tailored to individual students within differing classrooms.

Given the dynamic character of student efforts to succeed in class, it is important that colleges not only provide support, but also know when it is needed during a course. To that end, colleges and faculty must invest in frequent assessment of student classroom performance and use the resulting data to further assist students. This requires not only that assessment data are shared with faculty, support staff, and students, but are also used to trigger additional support when called for. Here is where “early warning” systems come into play. To be effective, however, such systems must be early, the earlier the better. This is the case because the longer it takes to identify and respond to student classroom needs, the less effective response tends to be. Ideally, assessment and response, when called for, should take place no later than the first several weeks of a course and continue throughout the course. Doing so, however, takes a good deal of effort on the part of faculty and support staff to establish and maintain such systems that is difficult to sustain without institutional support. The result is that early warning is often not early, frequently inconsistent, and in most cases limited to but one or two classes. Here is where technology can be useful. The application of web-based assessment with predictive analytics not only ensure early warning, but also enable such systems to be sustained and scaled up to a larger array of classrooms.

Support for classroom success can also come in other forms, none more important to learning than that which is embedded in how faculty construct and teach a course. We have long known that pedagogies, such as cooperative learning, problem-based learning and project-based learning, that actively engage students in learning with other students enhances both student learning and college completion. They do so for a variety of reasons not the least of which is that when properly implemented such pedagogies not only promote learning but also yield contextualized social and academic support that further promotes completion. The same applies to other shared learning experiences such as those that arise in learning communities and cohort programs in which students progress through the curriculum together. Indeed the evidence of the impact of shared learning experiences on student success is so compelling that it behooves colleges to make such experiences the hallmark, not exception, of college, especially during the critical first year when learning and persistence is still so much in question. In doing so, colleges should extend the classroom beyond its physical boundaries by using technology to expand the ways in which engagement can occur, as is possible in blended or hybrid classrooms, that utilize a variety of communication tools, and thereby enable more students to become engaged with others and learn regardless of their ability to spend time on campus.

To achieve that end, however, faculty must possess the pedagogical and curricular skills to develop such settings. Yet as compared to elementary, middle, and high school teachers, faculty in higher education, as a matter of practice, are not trained in pedagogy, assessment, or curriculum. This is not to say that there are not many faculty who are very effective in the classroom. Rather it is to say that as a matter of practice most faculty are not trained to help students learn. It follows that another action colleges must take to promote greater student success is the establishment of effective faculty development programs that require, not simply encourage, new faculty to participate in professional development activities during their first years at the college. Several community colleges have such programs, many more should.

Institutional improvements such as these do not arise by chance. Nor does substantial improvement in the rate at which colleges graduate their students. What is required is not simply that colleges support such efforts, but that they adopt an intentional, structured, and coherent course of action that does not leave improvement to chance but makes it part and parcel of a planned course of institutional action that is sustained over time. The simple fact is that substantial improvement in rates of completion takes time and not an inconsiderable degree of effort by all parts of the institution.

It also takes state support. Without such support it is unrealistic to expect community colleges, given their limited resources and the many challenges they face, to achieve, on their own, the gains in completion that states are now expecting of them as part of their funding formula. As it is for students, it is one thing to expect improvement; it is another to provide the types of support community colleges need to address the needs of the students they serve.

Vincent Tinto,distinguished university professor at Syracuse University, is a researcher, author and consultant. He has written extensively on student retention and consulted with a wide range of two-and four-year institutions both here and abroad. He serves on a variety of advisory boards for organizations focused on promoting student success in college, including the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and the Lumina Foundation for Education. 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.

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