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New Study Looks at Retention in Community Colleges

Community colleges must create an environment that is nurturing, friendly and easy to navigate to retain a greater percentage of their students, according to the Survey of Entering Student Engagement.

While the nation’s community colleges provide the benefits of a postsecondary education without the expensive collegiate price tag, many of the students that enroll in these institutions do not finish. Community colleges typically lose about half of their students prior to the students’ second college year.

National data show that students with certain characteristics are at greater risk of leaving college before their second year. Those who drop out are disproportionately students of color, low-income students and academically underprepared students.

In an effort to understand why some students succeed and others do not, the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), launched in 2007, reviewed the impact that the first three weeks of college had on the trajectory of 13,200 students from 22 community colleges in eight states.

“The preliminary results help to spotlight tough but important questions for discussion in community colleges. Who is falling through the cracks? How might we rethink and redesign our institutional practices in ways that will help more persist and succeed,” says SENSE Project Coordinator Angela Oriano-Darnall.

According to the survey, college entry is a very important time. Community colleges need to have an environment that is nurturing, friendly and easy to navigate. Chaos and disorganization repel students from engaging further into the collegiate process, researchers say.

Among the survey data highlighted in a report being released today, researchers found that only one-third of entering students reported that an academic advisor helped them set goals and create a plan for achieving them, and 41 percent indicated that they had not used academic planning/advising services at all by the end of their first three weeks at college.

More alarming was the fact that only 23 percent of entering students reported that a specific person was assigned to them so that they could see that person when they needed assistance. A safety net of academic advisors is a proven method of retention.

Fifty percent of entering students were told that they could apply for financial aid, but only 29 percent said that a financial aid staff member helped them analyze their needs for financial assistance.

Research points to the potentially positive impact of student participation in student success or freshman orientation courses, still only 36 percent of entering students in the survey reported participating in such a course.

In the coming year, SENSE will administer a national field test at nearly 100 community colleges.

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