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Community Colleges Work to Support Struggling Students

Many Americans are turning to community colleges for affordable education and job training in today's tough economy. But the two-year institutions are finding it a challenge to ramp up services amid growing enrollment and declining state support.

A new report released today from the Center for Community College Student Engagement based on four surveys of students and faculty reflects the gap between the promise of community colleges and the reality. While 79 percent of entering students say they want to complete an associate degree, just 45 percent meet that goal in six years, the data show. There is also a disconnect between services offered on campuses and student participation.

Getting incoming students up to speed academically appears to be part of the problem. When students enter a community college, about 74 percent report taking a placement test. This determines whether they have to take remedial classes, which often can bog down students and delay completion, research from the Community College Research Center has revealed.

The CCCSE surveys found only 28 percent of students prepared for the placement tests with materials provided by the college. About 44 percent of participating colleges offered some kind of test prep, but just 13 percent make it mandatory for incoming students.

After taking the placement tests, 72 percent of the students were put in developmental education. Colleges provide supplemental instruction and tutoring to help those who are struggling academically, but the surveys found few students took advantage of those supports, and most schools don't require it.

Working 30-plus hours a week is the norm for 42 percent of community college part-time students and 18 percent of those attending full-time. About half also are caring for children. The report concluded that just 26 percent of students had a college staff member talk to them about how to balance their course load with their work and family responsibilities.

About 15 percent of the community colleges surveyed require students to take success courses that teach study skills and time management and have been linked to course completion and better grades, the report notes.

Early warning systems for struggling students hold hope for retaining students. In the surveys, 14 percent of respondents say that they have experienced academic difficulties and been contacted by someone at the college, while 27 percent of faculty members say that when students are struggling in their classes, they notify someone else in the college who is part of a systematic early warning system.

The authors call on community colleges to inventory current practices and look closely at data to determine their effectiveness. They also advise schools to choose what to care about and then how to leverage resources. "If everything is a priority, then nothing of significance gets done," the report notes. "Given limited resources, colleges must identify the intentionally designed experiences that will have the largest possible positive impact on the largest possible number of students."

The report, "A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success," also includes descriptions of model programs across the country and is the first in a series of reports exploring promising practices for strengthening community college student engagement and success.

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