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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 August 29 - 12:00 am

Looking Beyond the Classroom


Looking Beyond the Classroom

By Paul Bradley

There was a time not so long ago that student services at community colleges were little more than an afterthought.

Students arrived on campus around Labor Day, picked up their schedules, met with their professors and began another academic year. Academic counseling was available, but rare. In navigating the college experience, students were mostly on their own.

But as the 2008-09 academic year opens, those days are disappearing.

Across the country, the push is on for colleges to provide a new generation of students with a broad new array of student services and break down the barriers which historically have separated student service professionals from academics, to integrate services and academics into a coherent whole.

Student services today go well beyond traditional academic counseling and help with scheduling. From providing students cash to deal with an emergency, to placing groups of students into learning communities, to making financial aid information readily available to those in need, colleges are making services available to students as never before.

Examples of new kinds of student services abound.

Two colleges in the New Orleans area, Delgado Community College and Louisiana Technical College-West Jefferson, are taking part in a demonstration project which makes low-income students cash scholarships based on their academic progress.

Sponsored by MDRC, an educational research firm, the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration rewards students with up to $2,000 if they stayed in school and maintained a 2.0 grade point average. The money is paid directly to students instead of to institutions, and can be used for any purpose – books, hiring a babysitter or cutting back on work hours to attend class.

Results so far have been encouraging. In evaluating the program, MDRC found that students who received the scholarship were more likely to enroll full-time, improved retention rates, passed more courses and earned more credits.

Meanwhile, MDRC and the James Irvine Foundation are spearheading an effort to improve student services at nine California community colleges. Since 2005, the schools taking part in the Student Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education initiative have received up to $250,000 a year over three years to improve student services.

The approaches taken by the participating colleges vary. Some have provided personalized counseling and tutoring services. Others hand out book vouchers or offer summer bridge courses to incoming students. Some colleges have created settings where students can meet with peers, student leaders and instructors. MDRC plans to publish a paper next year outlining results if the initiative.

Efforts like these demonstrate the importance that student services are assuming in community colleges.

Out of the Shadows

“This field is emerging out of the shadows of community college research and community college practice,” said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College and former associate director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Jacobs was among the speakers at the National Community College Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education and recently held in Washington, D.C.

Jacobs noted that two decades ago, a symposium focusing on students services would have been  unthinkable.

“There was very little 

 See Services, pg. 8, col. 1     attention paid to the achievement and the success of students,” he said. “Services were considered less essential. We know today that is not true.”

The drive to provide student services is an outgrowth of a sobering reality – too few community college students attain successful outcomes by earning a degree or other credential. Colleges are under more pressure than ever before to take ownership of academic results.

The imperative to provide help outside of the classroom is even more compelling because the student population of community colleges is the kind that needs help. Enrollment is more diverse than ever and likely to include large numbers of low-income students, presenting educators with difficult challenges.

“The majority of students who come to community colleges don’t know what college is all about,” said John McKay, president of South Piedmont Community College. “They don’t have career plans and many are working full-time.”

“There is a big disconnect among teenagers as to what is needed to succeed in college.”

 A Bit Bewildered

According to Dolores Perrin, a senior research associate at the CCRC, “The median age of community college students is 19, as opposed to the mean age, which is older. We are dealing with high school graduates who are coming out of high school a little bewildered.”

Yet as community colleges embark on serving students outside of the classroom, officials are confounded by a perplexing reality: no one knows what student services work in improving academic outcomes.

“There is very little research on this,” Perrin said at the symposium.

Some organizations are trying to change that. 

The Lumina Foundation for Education, through its Achieving the Dream initiative, is behind a drive to assist 83 colleges in 20 states to gather and evaluate the kind of data that will identify approaches that help students succeed.

Earlier this year, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement published the preliminary results of a new companion survey, the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE).

The survey was administered at 22 community colleges and yielded 13,233 useable surveys, produced a wealth of information on the experience of students entering community college during their first three weeks in school – and not all of it was encouraging.

For example, 41 percent of students said they had not used academic planning and advising services during their first three weeks of classes. Only 29 percent of those surveyed reported that a financial aid staff member helped them analyze their financial need. Some 66 percent of students said they never worked with classmates outside of the classroom.

Those kind of statistics underscore the point that community colleges must do more in providing services which will make a difference in academic outcomes, said Christine McPhail, coordinator of the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University.

“It’s time for us to take a look at how to fix our institutions,” she said. “We spend a lot of time looking at the students. The good thing is we are talking about it.”

“This is the first time in community colleges that we are looking beyond the classroom.”

 Dearth of Data

Still, McPhail, like others, is frustrated with the relative dearth of data about which student services yield the best results. Many community colleges simply lack the capacity to collect and analyze data.

“The jury is still out,” she said. “We don’t have the kind of data we need…we have bits and pieces of information.”

McKay, who has 35 years experience in community colleges, said schools need to be more “intrusive” with their students. This year, for the first time, is college is requiring all incoming students to go through an orientation session.

“Services have to be provided when they are needed,” he said. “They have to be provided early and they have to be provided often.”

College leaders also are mindful that providing student services is an expensive proposition. Some colleges have only one counselor for every 800 students, and hiring more costs money. Scaling up initiatives that have been successful to the broad swath of community colleges will require more resources.

In addition, programs that succeed in one place will not necessarily succeed in another. Each college has its own needs based on its peculiar circumstances.

“It is not one size fits all,” McPhail said. “They have to be tailored.”

 Related Stories:
Kingsborough Providing Answers to Student Service Questions
Autistic Students Get Help Navigating College Life

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