Tech That May Help These Students Graduate

Increasingly America’s community colleges, where 44 percent of students are nonwhite, are turning to technology to improve completion rates — and their rankings.

College of DuPage welcomed more than 1,200 students and 375 parents to campus in Glen Ellyn, Illinos,  during New Student Orientation Aug. 13 to 15, 2013. The recent event gave new students a chance to meet one another while gaining information about a wide range of services offered at the College. Fall semester at the College starts Monday, Aug. 26, with additional sessions starting Sept. 17 and Oct. 17. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: codnewsroom
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Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Nov. 18, 2013, 12:15 a.m.

Com­munity col­leges are good at help­ing stu­dents who have a clear sense of dir­ec­tion. But the sprawl­ing, un­der­fun­ded cam­puses of­ten of­fer little guid­ance for those who don’t know what they want to study, or what to ex­pect from col­lege. Im­prov­ing on-cam­pus ad­vising could be­come an im­per­at­ive for two-year schools if the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed col­lege-rank­ing sys­tem ends up re­ward­ing in­sti­tu­tions for gradu­at­ing stu­dents on time.

Soft­ware de­veloped by Wash­ing­ton re­search and con­sult­ing com­pany Edu­ca­tion Ad­vis­ory Board has helped four-year schools like Geor­gia State Uni­versity in­crease gradu­ation and re­ten­tion rates. As the EAB tries to de­vel­op a sim­il­ar product for two-year schools, it finds it­self up against a much big­ger chal­lenge.

“We ac­tu­ally think that the mo­ment where edu­ca­tion is im­per­at­ive, and cur­rently lack­ing, is at the very be­gin­ning of a stu­dent’s life cycle at an in­sti­tu­tion — really the in­take pro­cess,” says Sarah Za­u­ner, re­search dir­ect­or of EAB’s com­munity col­lege for­um. The pro­posed tool would en­cour­age stu­dents to define their goals, and then alert them when they veer off track.

Only 20 per­cent of first-time stu­dents en­rolled full time at pub­lic two-year col­leges ob­tain an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in three years, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al stat­ist­ics. That met­ric doesn’t fig­ure in the stu­dents who trans­fer to four-year col­leges, those who earn cer­ti­fic­ates, or the 59 per­cent of stu­dents who at­tend part-time. But it’s clear that many stu­dents who en­roll in two-year col­leges don’t reach the fin­ish line.

Part of the chal­lenge is that com­munity col­leges of­fer a wide range of pro­grams to a wide range of stu­dents. Com­munity col­leges serve every­one from teens seek­ing col­lege cred­its to work­ing adults pur­su­ing a cre­den­tial that will get them pro­moted. Some stu­dents en­roll ready for col­lege-level work, while oth­ers must take de­vel­op­ment­al courses to catch up.

Between 1995 and 2009, 70 per­cent of new His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an col­lege stu­dents headed to two-year col­leges and open-ac­cess, four-year in­sti­tu­tions, ac­cord­ing to Geor­getown Uni­versity’s Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. Forty-four per­cent of com­munity-col­lege stu­dents are non­white, and in 2011-12, com­munity-col­lege stu­dents re­ceived 37 per­cent of fed­er­al Pell grants.

Two-year schools de­liv­er this breadth of courses to this di­verse stu­dent body on a min­im­al budget. The av­er­age pub­lic re­search in­sti­tu­tion spent about three times as much per stu­dent as the av­er­age com­munity col­lege in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the Delta Cost Pro­ject. The ra­tio of stu­dents to ad­visers at the typ­ic­al com­munity col­lege is 1,000 to 1.

Stu­dents are ex­pec­ted to largely fig­ure things out on their own. “A lot of com­munity-col­lege stu­dents end up tak­ing courses that don’t count, either to­ward their de­gree in the com­munity col­lege, or, if they want to trans­fer some­where, that their trans­fer school’s not go­ing to ac­cept,” says Shanna Smith Jag­gars, as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of the Com­munity Col­lege Re­search Cen­ter at Teach­er’s Col­lege at Columbia Uni­versity.

That’s a huge prob­lem when stu­dents are de­pend­ent on Pell grants, which have a life­time max­im­um. “There are ma­jor con­sequences to mak­ing poor de­cisions on what courses you’re go­ing to take,” Jag­gars says. Stu­dents who switch to a totally dif­fer­ent ma­jor may have to drop out.

For four-year schools, EAB has de­veloped a Web-based product that alerts ad­visers when stu­dents fall off-course for on-time gradu­ation. Ad­visers are im­me­di­ately told when a stu­dent fails to sign up for a re­quired course, risks los­ing fin­an­cial aid, or earns a low grade in a course found­a­tion­al to his or her chosen ma­jor. Geor­gia State in­ves­ted in the stu­dent track­ing tool and hired 42 more ad­visers, to in­crease the school’s abil­ity to in­ter­vene at the first signs of trouble among its un­der­gradu­ates.

But for two-year schools, EAB is plan­ning a tool that would primar­ily be used by stu­dents. The product — still in its early stages — would in­vite stu­dents to an­swer ques­tions about aca­dem­ic strengths and in­terests, their fam­ily in­come and time con­straints, and the de­gree or cer­ti­fic­ate they’re aim­ing for. Based on that in­form­a­tion, the tool would sug­gest ma­jors and de­gree pro­grams, and provide in­form­a­tion on salar­ies earned by com­par­able gradu­ates of those pro­grams. The two-year product would alert stu­dents when they veer off course and give them ad­vice, like dir­ec­tions to the cam­pus tu­tor­ing cen­ter.

Ideally, the tool would also com­pile all that stu­dent data for ad­min­is­trat­ors. EAB wants whatever they cre­ate to be able to work along­side the re­sources col­leges already pos­sess, in­clud­ing their ad­min­is­trat­ive sys­tems and the num­ber of ad­visers they cur­rently have on staff.

Many com­munity col­leges already have ad­op­ted “e-ad­vising” sys­tems, on­line re­sources that may help stu­dents plan a course sched­ule, or have an early warn­ing com­pon­ent. Jag­gars says that there’s one big prob­lem with such sys­tems: Not all stu­dents use them. It’s im­port­ant to re­mem­ber, for ex­ample, that many com­munity-col­lege stu­dents don’t have a com­puter at home.

On­line ad­vice and in­ter­act­ive tools help, but for stu­dents who need the most dir­ec­tion, there’s no re­place­ment for a con­ver­sa­tion with a know­ledge­able hu­man be­ing. Michigan’s Ma­comb Com­munity Col­lege re­cently asked Jag­gars and her team to help them give stu­dents clear­er in­form­a­tion, and the re­search­ers’ ad­vice in­cluded free­ing ad­visers to spend less time deal­ing with the lo­gist­ics of en­rolling stu­dents in courses and more time help­ing them set goals.

“I def­in­itely got a sense from a lot of stu­dents that even if the in­form­a­tion that was avail­able was really clear and easy to un­der­stand, they still liked to have some kind of a per­son” to go to with ques­tions, Jag­gars says of Ma­comb’s on­line in­form­a­tion. There’s a so­cial com­pon­ent to nav­ig­at­ing col­lege. Some­times stu­dents just need to feel like they have an ally, someone who is look­ing out for them. Fac­ulty as well as ad­visers can play that role.

Ul­ti­mately, a suc­cess­ful ad­vising product will have to be really, really use­ful — so use­ful that com­munity col­lege ad­min­is­trat­ors be­lieve it’s worth the cost, and so use­ful that stu­dents are com­pelled to in­ter­act with it, and re­spond to its prompts.

That’s a high bar for any com­pany to reach. “Un­less they really de­liv­er, and de­liv­er an in­teg­rated solu­tion that works with what we already have — and doesn’t re­quire stu­dents to have ac­cess to com­puters — it will be tough,” La­Guardia Com­munity Col­lege Pres­id­ent Gail Mel­low says of new tech­no­lo­gies. If she were to spend money on tech­no­logy, she says, she’d al­most rather spend it on length­en­ing com­puter-lab hours, to make it easi­er for stu­dents to use the print­er.

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