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Report: Community Colleges Need to Boost Supports, Rigor

If students are going to be successful at community colleges, they need to be more aware of support available as they transition onto campus.

A new report released yesterday by the Center for Community College Student Engagement reveals that 19 percent of students surveyed were unaware their college had an orientation program and 26 percent didn't know about financial-aid advising.

And those writing, math, and other skill labs available on campus? Most knew they existed (70 percent), yet 65 percent never stepped in the door for help. Surely, you'd think a college student would take advantage of academic advising. The good news is that 72 percent of students surveyed knew about academic advising, yet less than half—47 percent—had used it, according to the report.

Community colleges can set up all the supports they want, but if students don't use them it's all for naught.

Many students who have trouble navigating onto campus are the ones that drop out of college. About one in four survey respondents reported skipping class one or more times in the first three weeks of class. Slightly more than half (52 percent of first-time, full-time college students in public community colleges return for their second year.

Campuses have had no trouble reeling in more students, it's the graduating part that is a bit trickier.

Just 28 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing an associate degree completed a certificate or a degree within three years, the report found. After six years, 45 percent of students finished their certificate or degree at a community college.

So, how should campuses connect students with services? Integrate them into the curriculum. For instance, the report encourages community colleges to incorporate support services into existing classes or consider making courses to help develop study skills mandatory.

Looking at the big picture, this year's report, "The Heart of Student Success: Teaching, Learning, and College Completion," focuses on how well students are doing in developing deeper-learning and critical-thinking skills.

While students are doing well on some measures, others point to a need for more rigorous instruction. The report calls on community colleges to beef up the quality of programs. Some educators worry that the national push for college completion could lower expectations and standards on campuses.

About 37 percent of students at community colleges report spending five or fewer hours a week preparing for class. About 69 percent said they had come to class unprepared at least once. Yet there is a disconnect. Almost three-quarters of students and two-thirds of faculty members said their college encouraged students to spend significant amounts of time studying.

The report is based on focus groups and data from the 2010 Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the 2010 Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, and the 2009 Survey of Entering Student Engagement, which polled students in their first few weeks of enrollment last fall.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement combines survey responses from the past three years from 400,000 students at 658 institutions in 47 states.

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