Students and workers thinking about going to, or returning to, college often don’t think about their local community college as their first choice.
Talia Christian, a student at Northeast Lakeview College in San Antonio, was one of those students. Speaking at a panel at Achieving the Dream’s 2022 annual conference of more than 3,400 community college presidents, faculty, staff, and partners, she told the audience: “I remember barely starting out and not knowing anything about community college. I didn’t want anyone to know I went to community college. I was looking at the bookstore and there was a t-shirt, and I was like, I would never wear a community college t-shirt.”
Talia was selected through a competitive application process to be one of 8 2022 Achieving the Dream Student Scholars—a program designed to enhance leadership, critical thinking, and networking skills of community college students.
Why do students like Talia go from not wanting to wear the swag from their local 2-year community college to being a national student leader speaking to college leaders from all over the nation about her love of Northeast Lakeview College?
What attracts students to community college?
One of the main reasons is that community colleges focus directly on individual needs and aspirations of students. They ensure that all aspects of the learner experience— beginning with enrolling and getting financial aid, to addressing the personal interests, challenges, and progress inside the classroom— is designed with the learner’s needs as the sole driver. Instead of asking if a particular student is ready for college, community colleges ask: Are we ready to serve that individual student?
By providing this assistance, community colleges ensure that their students can attend school without worrying about other crucial factors that can be barriers to their success.
This student-centered orientation is particularly important given the diversity of students served by the 1,000+ community colleges in the United States. Community colleges enroll nearly half of all students in higher education, including the largest percentage of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students. In addition, the American Association of Community Colleges found that close to 3 in 10 (29%) students enrolled in the sector are first-generation students and one-third are economically marginalized students who otherwise would not have a pathway to postsecondary education.
Responding to the diversity of students first and foremost requires community colleges to deeply understand their students’ cultural backgrounds. Further, they need an strong awareness of student personal interests and aspirations. It is this information that becomes the foundation used in the design of programs and services.
» Read: Why community colleges are important
Factors that can hinder student success at community college
Community colleges need to know who students are—not just their academic needs, but also their economic, social, and emotional needs. On this, a national study of college students surveyed students from 10 community colleges. Students reported that the 5 largest barriers to their academic success (in order) as:
How community colleges support students
For many years, institutions have developed pathways that guide students step-by-step from entry to graduation and employment. Community colleges support those pathways with a broad range of services that address individual student needs. Identified needs include assistance in housing, jobs, transportation, meals, and childcare. By providing this assistance, community colleges ensure that their students can attend school without worrying about other crucial factors that can be barriers to their success.
For example, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) has introduced a mandatory student orientation and registration session. This session provides orientation and registration guidance, plus a mandatory student success course with an online version available to provide flexibility in student onboarding. As Vickie Lock, Dean of Student Success at NWTC, points out, this has been key in “getting the right service to the right student at the right time.”
By asking students to identify barriers that they think they might have, from transportation to childcare to work-life balance or other challenges, NWTC gives their student services teams detailed and individualized data sets that can be utilized to reach out and proactively offer resources to students in advance.
Students receiving individualized support
At the same time, we know life happens and often gets in the way of students being able to gain momentum toward their goals and persist in their programs. To address shifting circumstances, community colleges adopt case management models which can ensure students have a single and ongoing advisor to help the succeed. The Alamo Colleges District, which includes Talia’s college, created a case management academic advising program where every student is assigned to one academic advisor from entry to completion. Advisors receive extensive training, are professionally certified, and carry a manageable caseload. A student works on a plan with their advisor, then they meet after the student completes 15, 30, and 45 credit hours. As a result, the student can stay on track to completion.
Equally important, institutions work to ensure courses and programs are designed to engage students through active and relevant educational experiences. This means students are enabled to learn the way they learn best—through practical experience in addressing relevant, real-world applications of knowledge to master skills essential and marketable in today’s workplace.
» Read: Upskilling with credential stacking
Community colleges staying relevant in their support for students
Community colleges are using both quantitative and qualitative data to analyze where students are succeeding and struggling. This data is the base for adjusting practices and policies to address those barriers. Yet, perhaps the most important aspect of this feedback loop is direct input from students.
Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, for example, wanted to improve how they gathered student feedback. They also wanted to utilize student perspectives to inform faculty professional learning and instructional improvement. As they teach, faculty volunteers are informally observed by a faculty peer. The central component of this process occurs in the final 30 minutes of lesson, without the presence of the instructor. The observer asks the students to respond individually, in small groups, and as a whole class to the following questions.
- what helps your learning?
- what hinders your learning?
- what can the instructor do to improve your learning?
- what can you do to improve your learning?
The observer synthesizes this feedback and discusses with their faculty partner to discuss how positive changes can be implemented. In a crucial last step in the process, the instructor meets with students to discuss ways that both students and the instructor can make changes to support learning and success for all.
Advice for prospective students
These are just a few examples of the ways that community colleges are working to become increasingly student-centered in every aspect of their operations. The overall goal is to meet the needs of each and every student who enters their doors, regardless of their situation or familiarity with higher education.
» Read: How community colleges help students transfer to 4-year universities
If you are considering what is the best pathway to a college degree, I encourage you to ask your local community college how they are providing student-centered services you might need. To get a sense of what a community college is like, arrange an appointment with your local community college to make a site visit to meet with students, join a class, and visit the student service center or campus teaching center to learn more about how community colleges can meet your individual needs.
Talia reports that she now owns countless t-shirts from her college: “I wear them proudly and tell everyone this is one of the best experiences—community colleges are amazing and such a good opportunity for students.”