Voices of high achievers on student success

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If you want to know how students feel about what they need to be successful, just ask them.

Last month, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK) invited 100 of the nation’s top community college students to Mississippi to participate in the organization’s strategic planning conference. In addition to participating in activities designed to inform the organization’s next five-year strategic plan, students also participated in programming centered around the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, including a visit to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and conversations with local historians and Civil Rights leader James Meredith.

These students represent the same diversity that is represented on community college campuses throughout the country. Some are full-time, while others attend classes online or on a part-time basis. Many have families. Some work. Most receive financial aid. Some students are enrolled with the intention of transfer, while others are preparing to move directly into the workforce after graduation. What they told us about their experiences will provide a foundation for PTK’s next strategic plan — but it can also inform the work of all community colleges throughout the country. Below are a few highlights.

Three themes

When asked “What is standing in the way of where you are and where you want to be?”, three themes emerged. The first: financial stability. Many students voiced concerns about the lack of access to basic needs support including food and housing, while others shared concerns around the rising costs of education and their fears around the impact of long-term student loan debt. For those who receive Pell grants, it isn’t enough, and those who don’t are just one emergency away from being a high-achieving college dropout.  

The second: a sense of belonging. Now, more than ever, community college students are struggling. Many of them lack confidence, social networks and emotional support necessary to be successful. More and more, community college students are looking to their college communities for validation and support. Students told us that a sense of belonging is an important factor of their success. They said they feel a greater sense of belonging when they are in learning environments that promote engagement with members of their campus communities. They pointed to engagement of all types — inside and outside of the classroom — with faculty, staff and each other.

The third: fear of failure. Community college students are wildly capable, but they do not necessarily know it, until we tell them. Many expressed anxieties about being the first in their family to attend college; fears surrounding their ability to effectively manage the demands of work, family and school; and a general lack of confidence in their academic abilities. In order to be successful, they must first believe what we already know — that they can do the work and be successful.

Culture is key

When asked “What do you most like about community colleges?”, culture emerged as key. Students pointed to things like small class size and personal relationships with faculty, staff and college administrators. They referred to college faculty members as “passionate and caring teachers” and colleges as “safe spaces” for them to learn and grow.

Over the years, community colleges have described themselves as places where we know students by name. We now know that isn’t enough — we need to know their names and their circumstances. Our colleges are so diverse, it’s hard to make friends and build your network, and online learning adds another layer of complexity here. We must do a better job of helping students build relationships with staff and each other. We can do this through learning communities, fostering interest groups, and creating and maintaining super-intentional cultures that make all students, no matter who they are, feel like they matter.

About the Author

Lynn Tincher-Ladner
Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner is president and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the international honor society of two-year colleges. Follow her on Twitter @tincherladner