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Student Input Helps Community Colleges Improve Overall Experience

Focus groups find out what works in the classroom, on campus.

She was in her second year at a community college in Washington state when we met. She’s the first in her family to go to college. Her parents are farm workers. She describes in English, her second language, the first time she stepped on the campus in this small northwestern community that is now her home.

“I’m from Texas,” she says. “I’m used to being around all Hispanic people. I wasn’t used to being around a lot of White people. That was intimidating.”

She describes opening the door to the college, stepping inside, and seeing a young woman sitting at a table by the door. “It felt nice,” she tells us, “to get greeted by another Hispanic. I walk in and I see her. Then it’s like ‘oh, nice, you know there’s more people here [like me].’”

Like many community colleges throughout the country, Skagit Valley College (Wash.) reaches out to its increasingly diverse student population and wants all students who come through its doors to feel at home. Skagit is one of the 16 colleges that have been recognized for improving student retention since the 2002-2003 academic year through the MetLife Foundation Initiative on Student Success. The foundation is a partner to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Student Voices Bring the Data to Life

For the last five years, an increasing number of community colleges have, through CCSSE, asked their students to provide data about their college experience. Drawing on research and practice that tell us what factors contribute to increased student persistence, learning and academic success, the students tell us in quantitative terms about their level of engagement — that is, the amount of time and energy they invest in meaningful educational practices. Through the MetLife Foundation Initiative, we conduct focus groups and interviews, listen to students and learn about what works for them in the classroom and in college services.

Data tell us a compelling story about community college student success. Studies of student attrition show that significant numbers of students leave college before completing their first term. In focus groups, we ask students whether they have ever considered dropping out. Not surprisingly, almost all tell us they have. “So,” we ask, “why are you still here?” More often than not, they answer the question with the name of an individual at the college — a member of the faculty, an advisor, another student, a staff member. We are learning about the power of relationships that cut across ages, gender, ethnicities, cultures and life experiences. And we are sharing practices from colleges that are creating cultures that value each student’s strengths and experiences, set high expectations and provide the support students need to succeed.

Students tell us that their community colleges offer them the opportunity to get to know people who are different from themselves and often help them get to know themselves as well.

“I was born in the United States and went through the whole school system and didn’t really know about my culture and my roots. [My instructor] taught me a lot about the history of Mexico, my ancestors. My greatgreat grandpa was of African descent so I got to understand why it was all mixed into the Mexican culture and how I came to be. It was awesome. To realize what my identity is — it’s really important.”

The MetLife Foundation Initiative currently is focusing on Starting Right, the first three weeks of the community college student’s experiences. Our newest students are telling us that they are highly motivated and firmly committed to finishing what they start and truly believe they will. After a few short weeks, students offer advice about how to help them get off to the right start.

• “For the first weeks, have people standing around to help and point you in the right direction.”

• “I think each student someway, somehow, should be assigned a mentor. Sometimes kids do get de-motivated, and they need that little push and they need the right encouragement.”

To hear student voices and learn how to conduct your own focus groups, see the video clips and focus group tool kit at and www.enteringstudent. org. For more information about the MetLife Foundation Initiative on Student Success, contact Arleen Arnsparger, project manager, at [email protected].

— The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD).

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