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Student Focus Groups Reveal Barriers to Community College Success

Getting through community college is a struggle for millions of students.

Balancing work and school is harder than many expected. Many arrive on campus surprised to learn they aren't academically prepared. And, without a clear goal or needed guidance, more often than not, students don't make it to the finish line.

To get at the heart of the college-completion challenge, researchers recently spoke directly with students—those currently enrolled in a community college, some who had completed a degree or certificate, and others who had dropped out. The resulting report, Student Voices on the Higher Education Pathway, is part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Postsecondary Success Initiative, Completion by Design, in partnership with New York City-based Public Agenda and West Ed, a research and development agency.

The hope is that effective and sustainable solutions can be identified by keeping students' voices and experiences at the center of reform plans, according to the report. The research that provided the information for it was conducted in March through 15 focus groups of 161 individuals ages 18-29. When asked about factors influencing their college decision, attitudes toward completion, experience with remedial classes, and institutional supports and barriers, five themes emerged:

1. Students wanted more exposure to career possibilities so that they could make better-informed decisions about the goals they set out to achieve and the steps necessary for success.

2. Most believed that the student success and developmental education courses intended to bring them up to speed were not offered in a way that helped them succeed.

3. Participants believed that having clear goals, and being in programs with well-defined pathways, gave them a greater chance of persisting, completing, or transferring.

4. Advisers, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students' educational and career goals are in high demand and can be hard to come by.

5. Although students know colleges offer a wide range of services, they report that finding the specific information or services is difficult.

In addition to the report, a video brings the issue to life through the profiles of several community college students. (Click here to view.)

Students talk of their aspirations to go to community college so they could have a career, not just a job. But once at school, reality hits, and many struggle to keep on track. Some mention being exhausted trying to work nearly full time and go to classes. Others talk about being guided in high school, but feeling they were on their own in college without adequate guidance for coursework and career goals. Students mention wanting a "road map" to know what to expect and have a focus for their efforts.

Policymakers are realizing that listening to students may be part of the answer to improving educational attainment. Other initiatives have focused on high school student voices
and attitudes of students about paying for the cost of college.

Later this summer, West Ed, along with Public Agenda will be releasing a second report that will include a broader survey of student attitudes toward community college completion and success.

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