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New Survey Helps Community Colleges Focus Up Front

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement is deepening community colleges’ understanding of students’ earliest collegiate experiences

Each fall, colleges across the country ask a perennial question: “How many new students did we enroll this fall?” Recruiting new students is essential to growing full-time equivalency (FTE) and increasing vital revenue streams. For community and technical colleges, however, the more daunting — and arguably more important — challenge is retaining students through completion of their educational goals. And as performance accountability pressures increase, the stakes for getting a grip on improving student persistence grow ever higher.

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), an initiative of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), asks critical questions about new students’ initial college experiences. SENSE data help institutions understand where students are thriving and where they are struggling, thus providing an additional tool for institutional improvement as colleges strive to increase student success and retain FTE.

Why Focus Up Front?

Nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates attend community and technical colleges. Among these are disproportionately high numbers of the nation’s undergraduate students of color — 46 percent of Blacks, 55 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 55 percent of American Indians, according to the American Association of Community Colleges — for whom community colleges are often the primary port of entry into higher education. Yet, if current enrollment patterns continue, only half the students who enter community colleges for the first time in fall 2008 will return for their second year, and little more than a third will complete a certificate or degree within six years. One key to improving entering student outcomes lies in understanding more about why these students persist at such low rates.

Although retention has been among the most studied topics in higher education, relatively little research has focused on factors impacting persistence among the diverse demographic groups attending community colleges. Recent research suggests that student experiences in the earliest days in college may have substantial impact on whether they return and eventually achieve their goals. Studies showing significant patterns of low credit accumulation and departure among first-semester community college students are particularly arresting. For example, data from Florida’s community college system indicate that a significant number of new students — 11.9 percent taking college-level courses and 14.4 percent of those taking at least one developmental class — earn no credits during their first semester. National data show that more than 14 percent of new community college students leave college after their first semester, while studies in Florida and among Achieving the Dream participant colleges found second-semester, nonreturn rates of 25 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Such substantial evidence underscores the critical need for better data about what happens in entering students’ earliest weeks.

Using Data to Make a Difference

Administered in the fourth and fifth weeks of the fall term, SENSE focuses specifically on entering students’ interactions with their colleges, from initial contact through the end of the first three weeks of classes. SENSE data provide colleges with a previously unavailable means for systematically understanding new students’ experiences on their campuses, thereby providing a framework for institutions to consider how well their organizational structures are meeting entering students’ needs.

Twenty-two community and technical colleges across the nation participated in the fall 2007 SENSE pilot administration, and almost 100 will participate in the fall 2008 field test. Even as the SENSE instrument is developing, SENSE data already are helping colleges reframe their understanding of entering students.

In April 2008, teams from 21 SENSE pilot colleges participated in the first Entering Student Success Institute (ESSI), a two and a half-day, hands-on learning event in Santa Fe, N.M. ESSI is designed to help colleges interpret and use SENSE data to improve entering student success on their campuses. Teams from participating colleges worked throughout the event to develop action plans for communicating and using SENSE results and for integrating potential new or strengthened strategies into their institutions’ student success agendas.

ESSI participants express strong support for focusing on entering student issues, common concerns about integrating existing student success initiatives and marshalling resources to address entering student issues. Action plans developed by the participating college teams show solid evidence that SENSE data are valuable tools in developing more integrated, efficient approaches to supporting success among entering students. Frequently cited strategies in college action plans include involving key stakeholders in an institutional policy audit to improve entering student access, defining an overall student success model as a guiding institutional concept, and creating cross-institutional task forces or committees to ensure institutional planning incorporates entering student concerns.

As two-year colleges continue to seek better ways to understand and enhance the success of their diverse student populations, SENSE will play an important role in describing the impact of students’ earliest college experiences on that success. To learn more about SENSE, visit the project Web site at

— Dr. Angela Oriano-Darnall is the assistant director of the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE).

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