Study outlines role of student supports in college success


If community college leaders are going to realize their main objectives – increasing student retention, graduation and course completion – they must ensure that student services are well-organized and adequately staffed and funded.

A new report by Ithaka S+R documents the differing perceptions and objectives of administrators in charge of academic affairs and student services but also found that both leaders support more collaboration. It is based on a survey of 249 chief academic and student affairs officers at community colleges across the U.S.

Collaboration will increase

About half of all respondents strongly agree that their department closely collaborates with others at the college to improve student success. Eight in 10 respondents anticipate the level of collaboration will increase over the next five years. That varies among college size – 92 percent of respondents from large colleges, 82 percent from medium-sized colleges and 68 percent from small colleges expect collaboration will increase.

Eighty-five percent of all respondents said increasing student retention is extremely important to their college. Seventy-nine percent said increasing student graduation is extremely important, followed by course completion (73 percent), student enrollment (70 percent) and student learning (68 percent).

That wasn’t surprising, said co-author Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, although she and co-author Melissa Blankstein thought there would have been more of a divergence between academic affairs and student affairs leaders.

That finding does offer a contrast with the responses from a 2018 survey of community college students, Wolff-Eisenberg said. Students are focused on completing a degree and increasing their income after completing college, she said, but “they’re also interested in bettering themselves in a holistic sense; they want to learn for the sake of learning,” she said.

Differing viewpoints

Services within academic affairs departments at community colleges focus more often on student learning outcomes, the report finds, while student services departments stress student enrollment and well-being. Approximately 76 percent of academic affairs leaders said improving student learning is highly important to their college, while just 57 percent of student affairs leaders agreed with that statement.

Leaders in academic affairs were more likely to say increasing course completion, transfer to four-year institutions and post-graduation outcomes were more important to their college than their colleagues in student affairs. Conversely, a greater share of student affairs leaders rate increasing student enrollment and helping students develop a sense of community as important to the services under their leadership than their colleagues in academic affairs.

In the next five years, about seven in 10 senior administrators predict their college will provide more assistance to students facing housing and food insecurities. Just over half (55 percent) anticipate providing more specialized services to subgroups of students, such as minorities and parents.

Only about 37 percent of administrators said the college library is extremely important in contributing to student success. Academic and student affairs leaders tend to view the library’s most important roles as providing access to technology to support student learning, providing resources for student research projects and helping students develop research and critical information literacy skills.

That contrasts with an earlier survey of students that found students highly value the library as a place they prefer to go for new services, Wolff-Eisenberg said. When administrators were asked about the value of libraries, “we were surprised at how far down the library falls on the list,” she said.

Financial constraints

In other findings:

  • Approximately seven in 10 senior administrators identify financial constraints as the biggest obstacle limiting their ability to make desired changes. Four in 10 say general resistance to change among employees and inadequate institutional infrastructure and systems are the biggest obstacles.
  • Senior administrators expect reliance on nongovernmental funding will increase as public funding will remain stagnant or decrease. About half of the respondents predict student tuition or fees and private gifts will increase over the next five years.
  • Senior administrators also predict budgets for academic advising and dual enrollment will increase, while budgets for many other services will remain the same over the next five years.
  • More than 70 percent of senior administrators – and even greater shares at large colleges – anticipate an expansion in the use of learning analytics tools.
  • More than 70 percent of senior administrators expect their college will incorporate more diverse course offerings for workforce students.
  • When asked to rate the importance of various services offered at their college supporting student success, 87 percent of respondents rated financial aid extremely important, followed by academic advising (76 percent) and the tutoring center (58 percent).

The report is the first phase of Ithaka S+R’s multi-year Community College Academic and Student Support Ecosystems project. The initiative aims to understand how services at community colleges are organized, funded and staffed to address student needs; determine what kind of library services colleges need; and how the library can best develop and sustain programs to support student success.

Future components of this project will include site visits and a survey of library directors.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.