Degree-planning tactics for community college retention

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Bird migration is an arduous, months-long process across thousands of miles. Given the scope, it’s not uncommon for birds to get separated from their flock, but ornithologists have found that divergent groups can reunite after flying up to 5,000 kilometers apart. (To put into context, 5,000 kilometers is farther than the distance from New York to Los Angeles!) Like migratory birds traveling vast distances, students need tremendous endurance and communal support to complete their college journey. Community college retention rates demonstrate how easy it is for students to go off course, but with a concentrated investment in degree planning, institutions can help students get where they need to go.

It's tempting to focus degree planning on the latter half of an academic journey, shoring up those final credentials to lock in completion. But learning pathways need to be established early on to be effective, particularly for community college students working toward an associate degree or transfer plan within a relatively short two-year timeframe. Regardless of their destination, when students have to tack unexpected semesters onto their academic journey, they become at risk of dropping out.

Investing in degree-planning processes and technology enables advisors and students to hit the ground running and never lose momentum. When community college students define their aspirations early and map pathways to getting there, they can efficiently move through their academic journey and complete their goals on time.

What’s driving community college stop-out rates?

The impacts of COVID-19 on students are well-known, particularly as the past few years have exacerbated financial strains. This is especially true for community colleges. In a study cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Center for Community College Student Engagement describes how “nearly 30 percent of students reported that their financial situations were worse [fall 2020] than they were before the pandemic.” While one in five respondents said they struggled to pay for college due to COVID-19, “a similar share said they had financial troubles that weren’t COVID-19 related.”

Affordability is a primary factor in deciding whether to continue a degree pathway, and the more semesters students have to pay for, the greater that financial strain becomes. Effective degree planning can set students on an efficient path to completion and lower the risk of stop-out. While dedicated learning models and technology can equip institutions for this goal, community colleges may need to reimagine how those tools are deployed to create lasting solutions.

Reimagined degree-planning tactics at community colleges

1. Jumpstart with gen eds

Entering students often build their first schedule from a wide array of introductory course options, but variety doesn’t lead to efficiency. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, describes how the “cafeteria model” overwhelms new students with too many options and too little direction. Whether or not a community college uses the guided pathways model, by clearly defining programs from day one, they can illuminate pathways to completion.

While general education requirements may be designed to provide incoming students with broad foundational knowledge, they also present an opportunity to home in on a degree plan early and empower students with autonomy. The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) describes how the concept of the “self-authorship” approach to degree planning positions students as “co-constructors” in their educational path before they’ve even registered for their first classes.

“Academic advisors can begin to shift common student perspectives on general education—such as the idea that these courses are merely a requirement to fulfill or a box to check—by guiding students through an intentional process of exploring the general education opportunities available to them.” NACADA writes. By connecting these introductory courses to individual aspirations, advisors demonstrate the meaning of gen ed requirements and position students to start their educational journey in the driver’s seat.

2. Develop a transfer-ready culture

Of the millions of community college students, up to 80 percent plan to transfer after completing their degree path. However, only 31 percent will go on to transfer to four-year institutions, and 14 percent will graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. Because of the unique challenges transfer students face, they may need additional support structures in place to persist.

Ensuring credits will count at a new institution is a top priority for transfer students, and articulation solutions can make this process more intuitive and transparent. While a community college can and should invest in course-mapping tools, it should be a two-way conversation. Transfer-receptive institutions should also invest in accessible portals for prospects to double-check transfer equivalency before applying.

Because of this, NACADA emphasizes the importance of collaboration between institutions, describing how “a transfer-sending culture actively normalizes the transfer function at the community college, while a transfer-receptive culture alters the conception of the transfer function at the four-year institution to develop a shared responsibility for the success of transfer students.” The result benefits both institutions, helping students efficiently complete required courses in their first two years before going on to finish a four-year journey, with no delays increasing the risk of stop-out.

While advisors are best primed to forward “transfer-ready” cultures, many faculty members can be “transfer champions.” The National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students describes transfer champions as “as agents, connectors, and advocates, filling various roles to ensure transfer student access, persistence, and success.” By cultivating an understanding of how best to support transfer students, while advocating for transfer-specific resources and orientation programs, institutions can help students maintain educational continuity across institutions. 

3. Data continuity and credit counting

Data is a key driver of institutional success and underpins student support services today. This only works, however, when information can be accurately maintained and communicated throughout the student lifecycle, not only across departments, but between institutions as well.

This poses a serious challenge for transfer students, whose data may not join them at their new school, assuming that information has been collected in the first place. The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program highlights potential gaps: “For instance, some community colleges do not ask about bachelor’s intent, while some universities do not include key identifiers for community college transfer students in their student information systems.”

Of course, while there are many kinds of data that may help a student along their journey, credits are the most critical, and these can come in many forms. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) notes how this can help adults aged 25 or older in particular, whose enrollment numbers dropped 37 percent for the fall 2020 semester compared to the previous year. The CCRC, a research branch of Columbia University, goes on to explain how “adult students may not be aware of opportunities to receive credit for life experience (e.g., military training) or through prior learning assessments, or may not realize that some credits earned for college courses taken elsewhere can transfer.”

While not all institutions recognize these alternative credentials, an increasing number have begun to do so as the higher education market reconfigures itself around emerging competitors. If an institution accepts microcredentials such as certificates and badges alongside traditional credits, that should be clearly communicated to students and accounted from the start of a degree plan.

Older students aren’t the only ones who will benefit from more robust credit-tracking. While exploring strategies to build back enrollment numbers, Inside Higher Ed reports, “At most community colleges, one large but often overlooked pool of baccalaureate-seeking students already have a foot in the door: high school dual enrollment students.” In addition to maintaining relationships with transfer-ready institutions, community colleges have the opportunity to establish clear on-ramps for K-12 school districts to transfer dual-enrollment credits after high school.

4. Empowering students with self-service

As higher education continues to undergo a digital transformation, many institutions are investing in self-service technology that enables students to map their own educational journey. By providing an intuitive, accessible dashboard for students to monitor degree progress and determine necessary courses, institutions can clear roadblocks on the path to completion.

Self-service can’t and shouldn’t fully replace personalized academic advising, but it can significantly alleviate pain points caused by high student-to-advisor ratios, particularly at two-year institutions. The issue is spelled out by one advisor in response to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement: “Our caseloads … are still too large to really be able to follow up with students. … In a perfect world, we’d have three times the amount of advisors.”

Without increasing headcount, self-service can take care of technical administrative tasks that might otherwise slip through the cracks, ensuring the same won’t happen to students. And by equipping students with all the insights they need to stay on track, advisors can spend less time spelling out course descriptions and more time offering personalized guidance to completion and beyond. 

Preparing for the future

While community colleges have faced significant persistence and retention obstacles throughout the pandemic, they’ve met each challenge with innovation. Just as the digital transformation has changed the way higher education uses technology, the past few years call for reimagined approaches to degree planning. With the right mix of strategy and technology, community colleges have all the tools they need to keep students on track through two-year programs and beyond.

Learn more about academic advising and degree audit tools.

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