5 Ways Community Colleges Can Boost Student Persistence

There's little doubt that the pandemic impacted student persistence in community colleges. These five tips can help students succeed and graduate on time.

Guillermina Gutierrez Martinez was balancing college and work when the pandemic hit. She considered dropping out of school because she was concerned about her family’s financial situation (her parents immigrated to the US in 1990 and faced limited job opportunities). But in the end, Guillermina decided to stick with her studies.

Many students, however, fell down a different path: According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) statistics, the pandemic dealt a blow to post-secondary enrollment across all institution sectors and severely affected student persistence in community colleges

Overall, “first-year persistence rate fell the most among Latinx students,” states the NSCRC report. Compared to all institution sectors, community colleges experienced the steepest persistence rate decline between 2019 and 2020. Black students experienced the lowest persistence rate during this period — a consistent trend from previous years.

The critical takeaway for higher learning leaders is this: there is much more work to do to create more equitable outcomes. Community colleges represent a stepping stone for individuals who typically face barriers to income mobility, yet deep-rooted inequalities persist. 

Community College Student Retention Best Practices

Progressive higher learning leaders understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for boosting student persistence in community colleges. Of course, there are commonalities: for all types of undergraduate students, a combination of academic and social factors influence their decision to leave their school. 

But a significant proportion of community college students are more likely to face additional hurdles. Some are first-generation students; others are older learners or learners balancing family, work, and college. Many students belong to marginalized groups. 

In a report by American Association of Community Colleges, about 36%of first-generation students are members of minorities. Over 50% of all Hispanic college students are first-generation, while 43% and 41% of Native Americans and African Americans, respectively, fall into this category.

These factors can influence whether an individual chooses to stick with their studies or not.

Boosting student retention at community colleges requires a holistic approach beyond learning content (although this is a key component when delivered within a constellation of solutions). Here are five ways to boost student persistence and retention at community colleges:

1. Hire Diverse Faculty and Staff

Students from diverse backgrounds who learn from diverse faculty are more likely to persist with their learning. But while many community colleges are thriving in terms of racial and ethnic diversity within their student populations, the individuals who hold faculty and leadership positions at these institutions typically do not come from diverse backgrounds. 

“Do we understand that it is not only possible — it is highly probable and likely — that our students can go through their complete community college education and not see an African American professor?” said Edward Bush, President of Cosumnes River College, in a Webinar hosted by EdSource about faculty diversity. 

Acquiring a diverse faculty is an urgent priority — but it won’t happen overnight. However, higher learning leaders can take steps right away: When hiring for new teaching and administrative positions, ensure there is always a diverse applicant pool. Regularly collecting data identifying the demographics of faculty and campus leadership positions is crucial as well. Over time, the institution can build teaching and leadership teams that look like the students they serve.

2. Foster A Sense of Belonging

Study after study confirms that when post-secondary students lack a sense of belonging, they are more likely to consider leaving their institution. Achieving this sense of belonging can be harder for first-generation students or those who belong to a group experiencing societal oppression.

One way to foster a sense of belongingness is by establishing groups serving the needs of specific communities. For example, at Jackson College, the administration has established affinity groups designed to understand and support the various racial and ethnic communities served by the college. 

But fostering a sense of belonging doesn’t stop at the group level. As the college’s president, Dr. Daniel J. Phelan, explains in this interview with BibliU’s CEO Dave Sherwood: “If a few people know your name and the road you are walking on, the likelihood of you persisting and completing is much higher.”

3. Provide Access to Affordable Content on Day One

With hardcopy textbooks costing as much as $400, course material can be prohibitively expensive for students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. Lack of access to course materials can impact academic performance, impacting student retention. Alternative solutions like textbook rentals can help alleviate cost burdens but can take days or weeks to get into the hands of students. 

A learning enablement platform solves those challenges. With this technological solution, students gain access to digital textbooks, monographs, and OERs on the first day of class and save between 30 to 50% on the cost of traditional textbooks. When everybody has access to learning materials when the course session starts, it is a significant boost for learning equity.

4. Align Learning with Real-World Needs

Perceptions of how a post-secondary education will pay off in the job market can impact student persistence. In other words, a student might be less motivated to stay with their studies if there is no clear path to a good-paying job with potential for advancement. 

To tackle this problem, Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit, advocates for the “creation of clear curricular pathways to employment and ongoing skill development.” As a starting point, higher learning leaders can review this report, which analyzes nearly 4 million resumes to identify which skill sets help middle-skill job seekers fare the best in terms of career growth. As you develop your curriculum, consider using blended learning techniques to meet students where they are and provide more affordances regardless of time, place, and learning needs.

5. Build One-on-One Support Programs

Persisting with college is incredibly hard when other challenges — like family responsibilities, mental health struggles, or financial setbacks–get thrown into the mix. Life struggles can also turn the bureaucracy of college life into a huge burden. 

This is where comprehensive student support programs, which typically assign students a mentor or case manager who works one-on-one with the student, can be an asset. According to this Brookings Economics piece, student support programs like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), Stay the Course, Inside Track, One Million Degrees, and Project Quest are incredibly successful. 

An evaluation of the ASAP program “showed that the intervention nearly doubled graduation rates after three years; 40% of the program group received a degree, compared with 22% of the control group.” 

But these programs come with a hefty price tag. If you are executing related pilot projects, collect data on success rates to demonstrate to policymakers and politicians that they are well worth the investment.

Unlocking Student Persistence at Community Colleges

A college degree provides the key to a better life and should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their situation. Unfortunately, this is not the case today: far too many students are overwhelmed by barriers and opt to drop out before they reap the benefits of new skills for better income mobility. 

With the proper retention best practices, higher learning leaders can take steps to tackle this challenge. And while technology won’t eliminate all the hurdles students face, it can play a key role in promoting student retention. Click here to learn more about digital content at your community college.

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