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Ramping up engagement to boost student success


For student engagement strategies to yield student success, they need to be well designed, implemented at scale and integrated into clear, coherent pathways.

That’s the key finding in a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), a research and service initiative of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

"A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students" confirms that student participation in any of 12 engagement practices is associated with higher benchmark scores on the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). However, providing opportunities for student engagement isn’t enough. It’s also critical to make sure that students take advantage of them. 

Key elements to improve student success

While an increasing number of community colleges are offering programs associated with engagement practices that show results, the surveys indicate many students are not using them. Below are the 12 identified practices and corresponding survey results:

  • Academic goal setting and planning—Less than half of students develop an academic plan during their first term, with help from an advisor, even though 66 percent of colleges offer this service.
  • Orientation—Nearly all colleges (97 percent) offer an orientation session before classes start or early in the semester. Only 60 percent of students take part in online or on-campus orientation before or during their first term, and only 43 percent of colleges require an orientation session for first-time students.
  • Accelerated or fast-track developmental education—Less than 30 percent of developmental students participate in accelerated courses, even though nearly 70 percent of colleges offer such programs.
  • First-year experience—More than 60 percent of colleges offer a structured first-year experience, sometimes called a “freshman seminar,” but less than 30 percent of students take advantage of these programs.
  • Student success course—Fewer than 30 percent of students take a student success course even though 84 percent of colleges offer it.
  • Learning community—More than half of colleges provide organized learning communities (two or more courses that a group of students take together). However, the participation rate is less than 12 percent.
  • Experiential learning beyond the classroom—Fewer than 16 percent of students participate in an internship, field experience, co-op experience or clinical assignment. Two thirds of colleges require experiential learning for vocational/technical students, and 27 percent require it for non-technical students.
  • Tutoring—Just about every college (99 percent) offers tutoring, but only 27 percent of students take advantage of it.
  • Supplemental instruction—Sixty-one percent of colleges offer extra class sessions with the instructor or an experienced student, but less than a third of students take advantage of this.
  • Assessment and placement—Fifty-seven percent of students knew they would have to take a placement test but only 37 percent of students who took a placement test had prepared for it.
  • Class attendance—Three-quarters of students report that all of their instructors clearly explained the class attendance policy.
  • Alert and intervention—Eighty percent of colleges have implemented an intervention process for academically struggling students, but less than a third of students who need such help say someone contacted them.

The report urges colleges to make these programs mandatory “for all students who can benefit from them—even if this means all students.”

It's all about college culture 

CCCSE also includes profiles of community colleges that participated in its program and used survey results to retool certain practices. For example, Zane State College in Ohio focused on "intrusive advising" to help at-risk and underprepared students succeed, while Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, in part, mandated orientation and established learning outcomes for orientation, advising and first-semester experience programs.

Intensity pays off

The study found that student engagement increases when they partcipate in more than one high-impact practice. For example, the more structured group-learning experiences students were involved in—such as orientation, fast-track developmental education and a learning community—the higher their benchmark scores on both the SENSE and CCSSE surveys.

However, rather than “put students through a random collection of experiences,” the study recommends that colleges “intentionally weave those experiences together in ways that increase educational coherence and momentum for success.”

CCCSE Director Kay McClenney—who served as co-chair of the American Association of Community Colleges' 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges—hopes the report will prompt college leaders to talk about redesigning student experiences on their campuses. But colleges should take a strategic approach to ensure that the experiences help students succeed. 

Designing new academic pathways

“Improved student success and college completion isn’t about having a checklist, or one of everything—a collection of boutique programs,” McClenney said. “Quality of design and implementation is critically important. Integrating discrete practices into coherent pathways is essential. And community colleges will achieve the improved results they seek only when they commit to high-quality implementation at significantly higher scale.” 

"A Matter of Degrees," which is co-sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and funded by Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is the second in a series of three studies on high-impact educational practices in community colleges. The third report, to be published in fall 2014, will examine the relationship between identified engagement practices and student outcomes.