Research indicates that students who lack a connection with their institution are less likely to return for the next semester.
However, faculty members can play a role in retainment as they serve as the “biggest advocates” for students’ success, according to Dr. Rosemary A. Costigan, vice president for academic affairs at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).
“When you speak to students who have graduated or just in passing, they usually can point to a faculty member whose made a difference,” she said.
Seeing how collegiate relationships impact students, the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC) developed the Caring Campus Initiative. Using funding from the Ascendium Education Group, the program works to build a culture of connectedness at institutions to increase student retention rates.
To do so, a small group of faculty and staff members — who hold high rates of classroom success — at select institutions engage in coaching sessions where participants identify behavior commitments and develop training curricula.
The types of behavior commitments include learning a student’s name early into the semester, building relationships outside of the classroom, developing clear course syllabi, assessing early to establish learning baselines and being “situational fair.”
“Students want to feel a sense of belonging,” said Maureen E. Abbate, professor of English at CCRI. “They want a sense of community with their faculty member. And once you can establish this with your students, it just paves the way for a much better semester.”
Jordan E. Horowitz, chief operating officer at IEBC, emphasized that the program’s focus on behaviors rather than attitudes and opinions leads to more success in addressing diversity and equity issues on college campuses.
“The research shows that if you change behaviors, attitude change will follow,” he said. “People change their behaviors to reduce micro aggressions, increase equity mindedness and adopt more of an asset versus deficit-based approach in their interactions with students and each other at colleges.”
He said that through the implementation of these behavioral strategies, there has been noticeable progress in improving retention rates.
According to IEBC, students at Caring Campus institutions exhibited higher term to term persistence rates compared to their peers. Additionally, community college students exposed to Caring Campus classes graduate and transfer to four-year institutions at higher rates.
There was also a rise in student success,
Across the board, course success rates — a C grade or better — increased for all students but remained higher for “groups who typically underperformed.” For many institutions, that growth occurred over the course of one year, IEBC reported.
“Students of color will tell us they want someone in the classroom who looks like them,” said Dr. Brad C. Phillips, president and CEO of IEBC. “We know that at the majority of our campuses, our students are more of color than our faculty and staff. Students will also say, if I can’t have someone in the classroom that looks like me, I want them to ‘get me.’… By spending time with students, these instructors are now actually adjusting their curriculum to be more attuned to the students they serve.”
With the first cohort launched in 2019, the program has since expanded to serve 800,00 students at 66 institutions across the country. Most recently, seven community colleges joined Caring Campus including CCRI, Harry S Truman College, Delta College, Maysville College, Oakton College, North Lake College and Tulsa College.
For Truman College, applying to Caring Campus was a natural next step as its current strategic plan focused on maintaining the “college experience.”
However, the initiative forced administrators to “look into the mirror” and further reevaluate the institutions’ current practices and policies, according to Truman College President Dr. Shawn L. Jackson.
“When we talk about things like retention and persistence and what student experiences are like on campus, everyone contributes to that,” he said. “It could be from the facilities to the temperature of the building. To the cleanliness of the school to the interaction with security. Part of our journey was wrapping everyone’s head around their collective contribution to what that experience felt like.”
Both Truman College and CCRI plan to implement their chosen behavioral practices and host professional development workshops during the fall semester. As the program continues, the Community College Research Center plans to study its effects on college culture, student outcomes and weight the benefits and costs.
“I think that coming out of this pandemic, this is the perfect time to really gather people together,” said Abbate. “Even if you are doing social distancing and wearing masks, you are still a community. And I think after this year that we have all experienced, faculty and students alike, it is the perfect time for us to come together and institute this kind of thing. I believe any college should jump at the opportunity to do it.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].