Listening to students, helping them persist


What helps community college students stay in college? Connections with others, engaging instructors, support services, and clarity about their academic goals and what they need to achieve them.

That’s what the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas, Austin heard when it talked with some Texas two-year college students about potential barriers to continuing their education. CCCSE compiled the feedback in a new report released on Thursday that aims to guide community colleges in helping students to persist with their education.

The report is based on CCCSE longitudinal focus groups with the same group of students at three points during the fall 2021 semester and once in the spring 2022 semester at three Texas community colleges (CCSCE receiving funding from a Texas foundation for the study). In the final interview, students were asked if they were as confident that they would complete college as when they started. Many said their confidence dropped, and that they had considered dropping out, citing various reasons, such as feeling unprepared and being overwhelmed with competing priorities.

“Many faulted themselves for procrastinating and not understanding the level of rigor that would come with college-level work,” says the report, noting that students shared stories about their financial struggles, illnesses, mental health and challenges in connecting with others.

Inconsistent experiences

The report highlights several takeaways from the focus groups. Among them:

  • Students said they wanted more information about “front door” processes, such as registration, orientation and payment, that is easier to understand.
  • They reported having very different experiences with academic planning and guidance. Some said they had an academic plan in place and knew what to take the next term, while others had no idea.
  • Students who participated in success courses, study groups and tutoring understood their value and were grateful for the experiences. Some students reported that they didn’t know about these services.

The report noted that several of these observations are related to elements critical to guided pathways. For example, the guided pathway framework advises colleges to require supports to help students get the best start, including academic planning based on career/transfer exploration and integrated academic support for passing program gateway courses. However, CCCSE noted that some of the practices were affected by Covid, such as orientation, which was done mainly online during the pandemic.

CCCSE Executive Director Linda Garcia emphasized the importance of front-door services, especially for first-generation students. She compared it to a new employee who is almost hand-held over their first few weeks — introduced to a company’s staff, explained what the job is and who to contact if help is needed.

“We’re not left alone as employees,” she said. Students shouldn’t be left alone, either.

Student profile

The report includes a profile of a first-generation student, Carlos, who worked more than 40 hours a week and was registered for four classes. He dropped out of school, but CCCSE located him to find out what happened. What he needed was some extra support, he said, noting that he appreciated his teachers, but he wished the college would have reached out to him. (See video, below).