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Student Engagement and Completion

Community colleges have been charged with keeping their promise to provide educational opportunity. Opportunity has been provided through open access admission; however, the fastest growing, best-paying jobs are those that require college degrees. Those who have degrees can participate; those who do not have degrees cannot. There is an income-based disparity between those who complete degrees and those who do not. Community colleges, while providing opportunity to many high risk students, have the lowest degree completion rates. To remedy this situation has been called a moral obligation. One means of improving graduation or completion rates is to improve retention rates. According to Kay McClenny, Director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “the research is unequivocal on this point: the more engaged students are, the more connected – to one another, to faculty and other college staff, and to the subject matter - the more they will learn and the more likely they will be to persist to attainment of their educational goals.” Key strategies to promote engagement retention and completion include:

 

Strengthen classroom engagement Integrate student support into learning experiences Expand professional development focused on engaging students Focus institutional policy on creating conditions for learning

Engagement can also refer to other means of advancing completion rates by engaging the community with the plan, engaging K-12 schools in the importance of college-readiness, and enhancing engagement of faculty and staff.

 

Degree Completion

Numerous articles, publications and speeches have outlined the national movement from “access to success”:

 

Today a new paradigm is emerging for the nation’s community colleges. While access has been both a defining feature and policy imperative for community college leaders, increasing emphasis is being placed on student success and achievement. In short, community leaders increasingly must focus on balancing access with success.

The call for increasing the number of Americans with college degrees has come from the White House, the College Board and several foundations. In an address to Congress the President of the United States articulated the following goal:

 

By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. We seek to help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates in the next decade. Ninety percent of the nation’s fastest growing jobs in the future will require postsecondary training, but only one-third of Americans have a college degree. To accomplish this goal the nation must expand access and success in education beyond high school... directed toward a single, overarching goal – to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials.

The American Association of Community Colleges announced the “College Completion Challenge:” which includes these statements concerning student completion:

 

Increasing success rates for all students and eliminating the attainment gaps that separate student groups on the basis of income, race, or ethnicity. Changing the institutional culture from emphasis on access to emphasis on access and success.

Asking all employees to help students understand the value of certificates and degrees and to help students progress toward these goals.

 

Asking elected officials and community members to join the college in this commitment and to create the conditions that enable, support and reward student success.

Cumberland County College supports these national initiatives. In New Jersey, all community college presidents have signed a Commitment to Student Completion. Along with this pledge, the 19 community colleges have developed a series of papers on student success. In the platform outlined by the College’s new president, in several new initiatives, and in its new strategic planning discussions, the College is now focusing on student engagement and completion.



College Initiatives

The College’s five year Title III grant has as one of its main goals to improve retention, persistence, and completion rates for academically underprepared students. Achievement of this goal will be accomplished through the following projects:

 

1. Expand and integrate proactive counseling and other academic and student support services for academically at-risk students; 2. Develop Student Success Plans for academically underprepared students; 3. Create a Back-on-Track intervention program for academically at-risk students; 4. Increase access to financial aid and need-based scholarships; 5. Redesign and contextualize developmental education courses; and, 6. Redesign placement and basic skills testing systems; and, 7. Offer an expanded summer Student Success program.

Another initiative is the College’s participation in Achieving the Dream (ATD). The objectives of this project blend with the Title III objectives and emphasize an institutional commitment to student success: “the polestar guiding every aspect of Achieving the Dream is a student-centered vision in which partners, funders, colleges and states are committed to the goal of improving student success.” Achieving the Dream colleges agree to these major principles:

 

Committed leadership with a vision for student success and equity in order to mobilize broad support for that vision throughout the college and community Use of evidence to improve programs and services Broad engagement Systemic institutional improvement

Student success and completion require a committed college. Colleges having a positive impact on student success and completion have the following characteristics:

 

An institutional focus on student retention and outcomes, not just on enrollment. Targeted efforts to address and support those from lower socio-economic groups, students of color and first generation students. Well-designed, well-aligned, and proactive student support services that guide and support all students from initial enrollment to completion. Use of technology and other means to proactively reach out to those students who are at risk of dropping out. Attention and resources devoted to helping all employees assist students who are academically unprepared and/or from minority populations. Better ways to teach and support students in need of academic remediation. Systems, policies, and procedures in place to promote student success. 

Conclusions

The nation, the state and the College have recognized the need to increase completion rates. Community colleges as a whole, and Cumberland County College specifically, enroll many high risk students. Because many of these students are first generation college students and those from lower socio-economic groups, they need support from all College areas to help them achieve better completion rates. Several organizations have compiled “tool kits” for increasing retention and completion. These initiatives include: increasing retention rates, embedding completion into the fabric of the institution and in its strategic plan; engaging students, the college community and the external community in meeting the completion challenge. At Cumberland County College, where helping these high risk students is vital, the Title III objectives and the Achieving the Dream goals both will provide focus on student achievement.

 

A U.S. Department of Education study states that “the best jobs and fastest growing firms, whether in biosciences, technology, manufacturing, trade or services will gravitate to communities, regions, and states with a highly qualified workforce.” In Cumberland County, the situation is urgent: the county has both the highest unemployment rate and the lowest educational attainment rate in the state. Community colleges have long been known as “opportunity colleges”. How will CCC reflect that mission in the next five years?