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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 June 16 - 12:00 am

NISOD Conference: Access Alone Termed Not Enough

AUSTIN, Texas — When Vincent Tinto talks, professional educators listen.

So it was no surprise that when asked for a show of hands, most of the 1,500 community college educators attending the annual conference of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development indicated they had read some of Tinto’s work as part of their schooling.

Tinto, a distinguished professor at Syracuse University and head of that institution’s education department has written extensively on subjects dear to community colleges — particularly persistence and achievement among under-prepared and under-represented students.Tinto was one of the keynote speakers at NISOD’s conference, held over Memorial Day weekend. He told the conference attendees that community colleges will be playing a pivotal role in the economic future of the country.

“The future of our country does not depend on the success of Harvard or Yale,” he said. “It depends of the work you do.”

Tinto commended community colleges for making higher education accessible to millions of students who otherwise would be shut out — members of minority groups, the poor, those whose families have little or no higher education background.

Yet colleges are not doing enough, he said. Mere access to higher education is insufficient. If community colleges are to fulfill their roles in truly serving low-income students, those students must be supported and nurtured, he said.

“Access without support is not opportunity,” he said.

He added that while many educators have sounded the alarm about the need to improve student persistence, few colleges really take the subject seriously.

“They treat student retention, like so many other issues, as one more item to add to the list of issues to be addressed by the institution,” he said. “They have done little to change the overall character of the college, little to alter the prevailing character of the student experience, and therefore little to address the deeper roots of student attrition.”

Colleges, he said, need to stop tinkering at the margins of institutional life and make student retention central to their missions.

He suggested several steps colleges can take, including:

 Setting expectations high and making them clear. “Unfortunately, it is too often the case that institutions expect too little of their students or construct classroom activities that require too little of their effort,” he said.

 Supporting students both academically and socially in the form of developmental education programs, tutoring, study groups and supplemental instruction. Colleges should also embrace counseling, mentoring and ethnic student centers.

  Providing early and frequent feedback beyond regular testing, especially during the first year of college. The feedback might include the use of learning portfolios and other forms of assessment that can alert institutions to students who need help.

 Recognizing that learning itself is a condition for retention. The more students learn, the more value they find in learning and the more likely they are to stay and graduate. “Student learning drives student retention,” he said.

Colleges also need to stitch together instruction into a coherent whole, and learning communities are a great way to do that, he said. Colleges should ensure that shared learning should be the norm, not the exception, especially during the first year of college. The approach encourages students to take responsibility for their learning and that of their social groups.

“Students who are more involved in learning, especially with others, learn more and show greater levels of intellectual development,” he said.

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