When administrators at Zane State University started using a survey instrument to identify students who were at risk of dropping out, at first they just invited students to meet and discuss ways to improve their chances of staying in school.
But when those invitations and even pizza parties didn’t work, officials at the community college in Zanesville, Ohio, started employing a more aggressive approach known as “intrusive advising,” wherein they would suggest more strongly that students meet face to face with advisers.
It would start with a letter and an e-mail message asking the students to come in for a meeting, and if students failed to respond, advisers would show up in class and ask the students to meet in person.
“It was implied as a mandatory meeting,” said Stacie Mahaffey, director of the Student Success Center at Zane State College. “We didn’t say you had to come in, but it was implied.”
Subsequently, retention rates rose — 77 to 82 percent from 2006 to 2009 among at-risk students — and students in developmental education began to complete their English and math courses at higher rates as well.
Zane’s success with “intrusive advising” is one of several such experiences featured in “A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success” — a new report released recently by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, or CCCSE.
Besides “intrusive advising,” the report highlights a dozen other “promising practices” that community colleges can employ to potentially boost their retention and completion rates, particularly among students who show up academically underprepared.
Higher education experts say the report is timely and useful given the increased focus being placed on community colleges to help cultivate skilled labor.
“This is an important report,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “Community colleges are being asked to do more than ever before, and CCCSE outlines some very promising practices.”
Kay McClenney, director of CCCSE, says the report is meant to help institutions examine their practices in order to get better at retaining and graduating more students.
“What we’re trying to do is provide information that is both useful and actionable for the community college,” McClenney said. “Community colleges nationally are at an important juncture.
“Within an environment of really constrained financial resources, community colleges are asking themselves: How can we get better results with our students? What is it we should be doing more of, particularly when we have to make choices in tight budgets?”
One impetus behind the report is to demonstrate how some colleges have already embarked upon efforts to get better results with their students.
Among other things, the CCCSE report highlights practices that range from alert systems and intervention for at-risk students to accelerate or fast-track developmental education to academic goal-setting and planning.
One unique feature of the report is it combines data from some of the center’s other surveys of students and faculty to help uncover areas where students and faculty have differing views of the extent to which something is or isn’t being done.
Take, for instance, alert and intervention.
Data in the new CCCSE report show that 50 percent or more of students indicated that they had not been contacted to get the assistance they needed if they were struggling with their studies. However, most faculty report directly contacting students, who were struggling academically.
“Faculty are overestimating student engagement,” McClenney said. “In the absence of systematic data such as we provide, faculty members, like all other human beings, draw their conclusions based on personal data.”
McClenney said one of her hopes is that community colleges use the institutional-level data provided by CCCSE to explore what is or isn’t taking place on their campuses.
That’s what Dr. Maureen Pettitt, director of Institutional Research at Skagit Valley College, or SVC, has been doing with data provided by CCCSE for the past several years.
In one instance, the college discovered that while learning communities were making a difference, support for students was rated as fairly average.
So the school launched a program called Counseling-Enhanced Developmental Learning Communities for students in developmental education. Subsequently, pass rates for students in the counseling-enhanced learning communities reached 74 percent whereas those without the counseling-enhanced approach had pass rates of 67 percent.
It’s just one example, she said, of how community colleges can use data from CCCSE to identify the need for new approaches on campus.
“I think as institutions we have to look at the national literature and seriously figure out how we can adopt those promising practices and practices that are shown to make a difference and try and make them work at our institutions,” Pettitt said. “We’re obliged to do that.”
The CCCSE report on promising practices is one in a series of reports the center plans to produce in the coming youths to help community colleges improve their student outcomes. Other reports will examine the extent to which the “promising practices” show actual evidence that they work.