Engage New Students Early Or Lose Them: Here’s How to Do It


Jean Petty started her community college education right out of high school and had no idea how to “do college.” She walked into the first college she attended not knowing where to start, and no one was very helpful in getting her enrolled and on a pathway. She repeated this experience at three different community colleges over three years. It was not until she went to Orange Coast College in California when that changed. 

At Orange Coast, a staff member greeted her: “I am so glad you are here!” When Petty responded, “But you don’t know who I am,” the staff member responded, “I do, you are a student here!”Dr. Brad C. PhillipsDr. Brad C. Phillips

That interaction changed her life, said Petty, who now holds a master’s degree. It gave her the confidence to pursue her education because someone at the college cared about her.

Many community college students have Petty’s experience. They are afraid to go to college, even before the first day. The application processes are daunting. Potential students are often treated as a number, not a person. Their interactions with staff, especially during the busy enrollment process and the first couple of weeks of attendance, are primarily transactional, not relational. This has a tremendous impact on who stays and goes during the first couple weeks of class.

We’ve developed two different evidence-based frameworks to address this lack of connection early in community college students’ careers: Caring Campus at the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC), where Petty is a coach, and the Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan (ACIP) framework at the Community College Research Center. Though they emerged separately, we believe they can work together to improve students’ early onboarding experiences, connect them to their college early, and boost their outcomes.

Research by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) indicates that one reason so many community college students drop out early on is that they are not helped to explore their interests and options and develop an educational plan aligned with their strengths and aspirations. Instead, new student orientation, advising, and other supports are focused on assessing whether students need remediation, introducing students to the college, and helping them schedule their first-term courses. And many of these supports are optional.

To address this problem, CCRC drew on research on effective supports for entering students and developed the ACIP framework for redesigning the new student experience to help them not just orient to the college but onboard into a program. By our definition, students have entered a program when they have explored options and chosen a program direction, passed introductory program gateway courses, and developed a full-program educational plan. To increase the rate at which entering students gain early momentum in a program, CCRC research indicates that colleges need to ensure that every entering student has an onboarding experience shaped by these practices:

·        Ask – Every student is engaged in an ongoing conversation about their interests, strengths, aspirations, and life circumstances with the aim of helping them explore programs of study and career paths aligned with their goals.

·         Connect – From the start, colleges organize opportunities for students to meet with faculty, students, alumni, and employers in fields of interest to them.

·         Inspire – Every student takes a least one course in their first term on topics of interest that light their fire for learning.

·         Plan – Every student is helped by the end of their first term to develop a full-program educational plan that shows them a path to their career and education goals. Dr. Hana LahrDr. Hana Lahr

The program onboarding process can take up to a year. But many students leave during that first year. According to the most recent data on undergraduate retention and persistence from the National Student Clearinghouse, only about half of students who start college at a community college are retained at their starting institution into year 2. Only 45% of both Black and Native American community college students return to their starting college for a second year. And, in an informal survey, colleges reported losing 20–30% of their students before they even get to the census day when they are officially counted. This means that if a college starts with 1,000 new students on day one, only 700–800 will be there about two weeks later.

As these stats make clear, the connection part of Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan needs to happen right away—before the end of the first two weeks of class. Through Caring Campus, the IEBC has developed ways that faculty and professional staff can help make this essential connection with students right away.

In the IEBC’s Caring Campus work at over 100 colleges across the U.S., we have learned that student connections should begin early—even before they start the term. Professional staff must reach out to students and welcome them to the college. They should also support students to complete all of the necessary paperwork before the term begins. Subgroups of students who typically need support services should be contacted and invited in to discuss their needs.

Connections with faculty are important. When a student connects with a faculty member and other students, they are more likely to stay in college. Syllabi and course expectations need to be clear and consistent across all courses so students do not have to learn how to do one faculty member’s course and then learn different rules for every other faculty member. On the first day of class, faculty need to initiate activities that encourage students to bond with the faculty member and their fellow classmates. Faculty should know students’ preferred names and use them from the very start.Dr. Davis JenkinsDr. Davis Jenkins

The data are clear: Colleges that engage in Caring Campus are reporting extraordinary gains in course success, persistence, and even graduation and transfer. For example, early adopters have seen increased course pass rates of 9%, and for Black students the increases are an even more dramatic 22%. Increases in fall-to-fall persistence have ranged between 6% and 19%. One of the early adopters has seen graduation and transfer rates for Black and Latinx students double, with increases for all other demographic groups. 

To retain more students and thereby build back enrollments, community colleges need to rethink the process by which entering students explore interests and choose a program. ACIP and Caring Campus practices can work together to ensure that from the time they apply to the college that each and every one of them feels welcome, connected, and that they belong in college.

Dr. Brad Phillips is the president and CEO of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change.

Dr. Davis Jenkins is a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Hana Lahr is a senior research associate and director of applied learning at the Community College Research Center.