When Jianping Wang joined Mercer County Community College (MCCC) as the college’s president in July 2015, she was quick to vocalize the unprecedented challenges facing community colleges today, among them declining enrollment, decreasing public funding and increasing demand for higher graduation rates.
Such fundamental problems called for reexamination of the school’s foundation, an assessment Wang deemed necessary to ensure her students entered the working world as productive employees and engaged citizens.
The newly minted administrator laid out a strategic plan that overhauled MCCC’s organizational structure and changed its culture based on the tenets of faculty-wide accountability and professional effectiveness. Drilling down into these larger issues meant presenting a reimagined advising system, a new student intake process and the integration of technology-driven strategies to make student success — as Wang puts it — “everyone’s business.”
Nearly two years after restructuring, MCCC has seen slight increases in its enrollment and graduation rates. Wang credits a portion of this uptick to the streamlining of programming and services, but she knows the work is far from complete. Nor is she alone, as community colleges across the nation are redesigning their educational infrastructure to better orient and guide students toward completion.
“We saw the challenges faced by schools these days as an opportunity to innovate,” Wang says. “It was an impetus for innovations we never even dreamed of.”
Keeping it together
Service and accountability form the basis of MCCC’s new foundation, notes Wang. Changes start at the front end of the student experience, with receptionists trained to field basic administrative questions about financial aid, registration and other topics. All staff members are asked to help students with directions on campus, in some cases literally walking them from the parking lot to their destination.
“This is part of a cultural change,” Wang says. “If we don’t innovate, we’ll get the same results we’ve always gotten, which is not what we want.”
Raising the school’s retention rates — only about 14 percent of MCCC attendees stay with the school to completion — means easing the complex pathway from entry to graduation. For example, advising systems that had previously been organized by last name are now categorized into clusters based on a learner’s background or study program. Today, military veterans, would-be health professionals and dual-enrollment students all have their own easily accessible categories.
Advisors place cluster data into a newly installed tracking system that is then transferred to professors, giving them critical information about a student before they ever step into a classroom. Meanwhile, color-coded course tracks create clearly defined outcomes for learners unsure of what classes they need to graduate, a game plan bolstered by an Amazon-like “shopping cart” of suggested courses assembled by an academic advisor.
Lending coherence to course selection is particularly important in the retention of community college enrollees, a significant number of whom are adults with children and other responsibilities, or sometimes leave school mid-semester because of family emergencies or changes in employment.
“Many of these people are first-generation college students who don’t know the system,” Wang says. “With our new structure, we have advisors reaching out to students to tell them what they need to do.”
Streamlined and self-contained services
About 1,200 U.S. community colleges enroll more than 12 million students each year, comprising nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates. Yet fewer than 40 percent of entrants complete an undergraduate degree within six years, according to the 2015 book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, which posits the need for wholesale changes in the way two-year schools operate.
To answer that dilemma, even long-established entities are rethinking the ways they organize study programs, support services and instruction. Enter Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC), a century-old institution providing 10,000 learners on 10 campuses and student centers with workforce training and academics at a low tuition.
Like many community colleges, MGCCC is dealing with static or declining funding that is unable to keep up with rising student enrollment. In 2000, the school’s per-student budget was about $4,500; today that figure hovers at $4,250.
“Due to decreased support, we’ve been forced to raise tuition,” says MGCCC Vice President Jonathan Woodward. “We’re always working on finding operational and academic efficiencies to stabilize cost.”
That effort redoubled in recent years when MGCCC transformed its student services model to a systemic approach that officials say is streamlined, centralized and self-contained. Budgetary issues are one reason for the change, but an easier-to-digest intake process is seen as another amenity for a generation expecting customization in all levels of the college experience.
“Millennials and ‘Generation Z’ want more services outside of the classroom,” Woodward says. “We came up with our ‘organic redesign’ as a response. Students are supported from recruitment through intake, all the way through graduation. There are institutions fighting for these students. We want them to have an incredible time here from a customer service standpoint.”
MGCCC’s new admissions process combines services that had remained separate over the school’s history. In the old days, a student would be shuttled among different buildings for financial aid or admissions queries, leading to delayed responses and a good deal of confusion and frustration. Under the current student services division, those processes are handled in one concentrated area by a pair of departments. Enacted a year ago, the revitalized system is able to turn around a financial aid request that previously took two to three weeks in a speedy 24 hours.
“It’s a total realignment of resources where we want to accommodate 85 to 90 percent of all student needs into a single enrollment services center,” Woodward says. “Our staff has been cross-trained in these services and we gave new titles and rewrote job descriptions for most every position. Students were going all over the universe for these different services, and now they don’t have that frustration.”
Read the full article in Community College Journal online.