May 23, 2016
If you are searching for examples of student retention best practices, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s collection of 68 promising and practical strategies to increase postsecondary success. A dozen of these promising strategies come from public two-year colleges. The Advocate of Affordable College reviewed these best practices and shares some promising and practical strategies that your community college could use to improve student retention.
By Greg Jarboe
Student Retention Best Practices at Public Two-Year Colleges

If you are searching for examples of student retention best practices, then you should check out the U.S. Department of Education’s collection of 68 promising and practical strategies to increase postsecondary success. A dozen of these promising strategies come from public two-year colleges.

The Advocate of Affordable College has reviewed these best practices and decided to share a synopsis of each one below. In alphabetical order, here are some promising and practical strategies that your community college could use to improve student retention.

Cape Cod Community College: College Reading and Study Skills Embedded in Learning Communities 

Cape Cod Community College (CCCC) developed Learning Communities in response to literature that suggested learning communities fostered shared learning, shared responsibility, and shared knowledge among students and instructors. Ultimately, assisting students to become effective and successful learners is the primary role of higher education institutions.

CCCC has found that learning communities are an effective format for student learning and success. The faculty members facilitating learning communities jointly plan and select activities and assignments around common themes. Scheduling courses in back-to-back blocks allows students in each course to spend more time together, establish new relationships, form study groups, make stronger connections with faculty, and engage in their courses when compared to students taking similar courses without a learning community.

Unfortunately, evidence on the effectiveness of learning communities on student retention was not collected and analyzed until 2012. However, anecdotal and recently collected empirical data has shown that learning communities are particularly effective for first-time students enrolled in developmental courses and College 101, the first-year experience course. Two examples illustrate the hypothesis that sections of College Reading and Study Skills embedded in Learning Communities retain students for one or two additional semesters in greater numbers than when taught as stand-alone courses, (a) Navigating through College Success with Reading and Writing and (b) Reading and Writing: What a Winning Combination.

Coconino Community College: CCC2NAU a Degree Closer

Improving college readiness and degree completion has been identified as an unresolved problem in higher education and a goal of the Obama administration. A particular area of poor performance is the successful transition of community college students to universities to complete a four year degree.  A longitudinal study of transfer students showed that while 71% of community college students indicated a desire to complete a four year degree, only 11% ended up pursuing a major and taking courses toward a baccalaureate degree.  

Arizona is particularly at risk in terms of producing university graduates with only 1 in 8 current ninth-graders earning a four-year degree, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Even though Arizona has been a pioneer in developing a nationally known state articulation model that includes a common general education core, course and exam equivalency guides, a shared numbering system, and articulation agreements, Arizona community college students continue to struggle with low transition rates to Arizona universities.

Coconino Community College (CCC) is a small rural community college located in close proximity to Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Neighboring NAU is one of Arizona’s three, four-year universities, and even though CCC and NAU are located just a half mile from each other in the small northern mountain town of Flagstaff, the distance for transfer students seemed much further. A traditional transfer culture model did not facilitate a seamless transition from an associate to a baccalaureate degree.

In 2008 the presidents of CCC and NAU conceived an innovative transition partnership to increase student retention and degree completion for both CCC and NAU students, known as the CCC2NAU program. The CCC2NAU program was developed to improve transition and success of CCC students who set a goal of earning a four year degree by transitioning to NAU.  CCC students who had not previously attended NAU or earned a Bachelor’s degree were eligible for the program, and the participating students gained admission to both institutions and resources at both.

Forsyth Technical Community College: Mandatory New Student Orientation 

Beginning in the summer of 2012, Forsyth Technical Community College developed a mandatory new student orientation process to support a successful transition to Forsyth Tech and improve overall retention efforts. For new students attending during the fall 2012 semester, failure to complete an orientation resulted in a registration restriction for the student. Both in-person and online sessions were offered as options for students, and participants learned about the institution’s academic policies, procedures, programs, and resources. Students also spoke with an advisor and worked with a peer student orientation leader to learn the online student portal system and to register for classes.

Howard Community College: Silas Craft Collegians Program

The Silas Craft Collegians Program (SCCP) serves a selected group of incoming motivated freshman whose performance has not met their true potential. This learning community offers comprehensive academic and personal support services that are designed to maximize academic achievement, personal growth, retention, graduation, and transfer.

Although African American males are a targeted population, the program is open to any recent high school graduate testing into developmental English or math. Students are offered: tutoring; study sessions; study skills; small class sizes; mentoring; academic and personal counseling; career education; leadership development; networking and community service opportunities; and personal growth seminars. The SCCP also promotes social, civic and cultural awareness. The basis for developing this program is to teach, nurture, coach and counsel students in reaching their true potential for academic and personal success and to create a climate that encourages students to empower themselves.

The idea for creating the SCCP was generated from Howard Community College’s (HCC) Board of Trustees in 1999 as a retention strategy.  Following a year-long planning period, the program was initiated in Fall 2000 with its first class.  The program has since served 265 students.

Howard Community College: Step UP

Step UP is a student retention program that employs life coaching techniques as a means to connect with and engage participants.  Faculty and staff from constituencies across the campus serve as Step UP coaches to meet with students; all are volunteers.  During weekly meetings, coaches encourage, guide, and support their Step UP students as they make the transition to college.  Although Step UP targets at-risk students, it is open to all students.  

At HCC, 68 percent of new students place into at least one developmental course. Of those who persist (those who attempted 18 credits within their first two years, per the state degree progress metric definition), 66% of the developmental completers graduate and/or transfer within four years. Though HCC offers many resources to help students overcome academic and personal obstacles, data reveals that developmental students do not take advantage of those resources. Furthermore, when a focus group of students who failed a developmental course was asked what factors contributed to their failure, the most frequent reasons were:  financial and family problems, academic rigor, and that their success or failure did not matter to anyone.

In creating Step UP, the original mission was to improve the success and retention of developmental education students by helping them connect to college resources and providing support from a trusted “coach.” The program was so successful that after a few semesters, the mission was broadened so that all Howard Community College students are welcome though emphasis continues to be serving developmental students.

LaGuardia Community College: Green Jobs Training Program 

The Green Jobs Training Program, a collaboration between Queens Botanical Garden and LaGuardia Community College with support from the Port Authority of NY & NJ, is a free training curriculum targeting unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers for careers in Waste Management, Sustainable Landscape Design & Maintenance, and Green Cleaning & Housekeeping. The program helps participants develop job readiness skills, prepares them to apply for green jobs, and connects them with employers and companies that have or want to develop a green focus. The primary obstacle to the success of the program is participant retention, which precludes successful program completion and job placement. This obstacle has been addressed by incorporating strategies of (1) “achievability”: the steady communication of clear and achievable outcomes to all program participants and (2) “workability”: development of a program structure that is concise, directed and workable for a variety of personal schedules.

MDRC: Enhanced Academic Counseling for Community College Students

Beginning in 2003, MDRC partnered with two community colleges in Ohio, Lorain County Community College in Elyria and Owens Community College in Toledo, to design and evaluate a program aimed at improving academic outcomes for low-income community college students by providing them with enhanced student services. There are many possible ways to enhance student services. The program in Ohio, which students participated in for two semesters, offered students improved advising with specially-trained counselors and a small stipend given for meeting with those counselors. Ohio’s program was one of several approaches aiming to improve the success rates of community college students that MDRC studied in the multi-site Opening Doors Demonstration.

MDRC evaluated Opening Doors Ohio using a random assignment design. Students who expressed interest in the program were randomly assigned either to a program group, where they had the opportunity to receive the services and stipend, or a control group, where they were offered the college’s usual services. Random assignment ensures that students in both the program and the control groups are similar in terms of observable characteristics like age, gender, or race, as well as harder-to-observe characteristics like academic experiences before college or personal motivation. By following both groups and comparing their outcomes, the evaluation provides strong evidence of the “value added,” or impact, of the program on student achievement.

The Ohio program targeted low-income students between the ages of 18 and 34 who were either (a) beginning freshmen or (b) continuing students with fewer than 13 credits who had experienced academic difficulties, namely failing or withdrawing from courses, in their first semester. The course. The sixth program evaluated as part of the Learning two colleges identified eligible students and invited them to participate in the study. From there, students were randomly assigned to either the program group, which was eligible to receive the Opening Doors Ohio program services, or the control group, which was eligible to receive standard college services and no stipend. MDRC used school transcript data and a survey given to students approximately 12 months after random assignment to assess academic and social outcomes for both groups of students.

MDRC: Learning Communities

MDRC’s Opening Doors Demonstration and the Learning Communities Demonstration used a random assignment research design to test this strategy as implemented in six community colleges around the country. Random assignment ensures that students in both the program and the control groups are similar in terms of observable characteristics, such as age, gender, and race, as well as harder-to-observe characteristics, such as academic experiences before college and personal motivation. By following both groups and comparing their outcomes, the evaluation provides strong evidence of the “value added,” or impact, of learning communities on student achievement.

As part of MDRC’s multisite Opening Doors Demonstration, Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, tested a one-semester learning community program. The program placed freshmen, most of whom needed developmental English and/or developmental math courses, into groups of up to 25 students who took three classes together during their first semester: an English course, an academic course required for the students’ major, and a freshman orientation course. It also provided counseling, tutoring, and textbook vouchers. From fall 2003 to spring 2005, over 1,500 students were randomly assigned to either the program group, where they had the opportunity to participate in the program and enroll in a learning community, or the control group, where they were offered the college’s usual services but could not enroll in the learning communities program.

The Kingsborough study found that the program improved students’ college experiences and some short-term educational outcomes, including credit attainment and progress through developmental English requirements. In part as a result of the early Kingsborough findings, the National Center for Postsecondary Research, of which MDRC is a partner, launched the Learning Communities Demonstration at six colleges. Five of these institutions – the Community College of Baltimore County

(CCBC) in Maryland, Hillsborough Community College in Florida, Houston Community College in Texas, Merced College in California, and Queensborough Community College in New York – operated learning communities for students in need of developmental courses in English or math. The targeted developmental course was linked with a “student success course,” another developmental course, or a college-level Communities Demonstration consisted of career-focused learning communities at Kingsborough; these learning communities did not include developmental courses. As in Opening Doors, random assignment was used to estimate impacts for each program. From 2007 to 2009, approximately 1,000 students were randomly assigned at each college, about half of whom had the opportunity to enroll in a learning community.

Metro Academies: Increasing College Completion Through a Redesign of the First Two Years of College

Founded in 2008 by San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco, Metro Academies is an innovative and sustainable postsecondary program that aims to sharply improve timely graduation with an associate and/or a bachelor’s degree. Outreach is focused on first-generation, low-income and/or under-represented students. It is designed for wide adoption within public institutions that have limited resources and large numbers of low-income students who require a range of supports to succeed.  The program is funded primarily by a more efficient allocation of existing resources.  

Metro Academies reconfigure the critical first two years of college, when students are most likely to drop out.  Students work as a cohort within a long-duration learning community, studying in two linked courses each semester over four semesters. Student services are tied in to courses themselves, and academic counselors “loop” to follow students over time. Each Metro Academy (or Metro) functions as a ‘school within a school’ with capacity for up to 140 students, giving students a personalized educational home.   An institution may host any number of Metro Academies.   

Each Metro has a career theme in a high-growth field, such as health and human services or Science/Technology/ Engineering/Math (STEM). Early results from comparison-group studies of similar Metro and non-Metro students show that Metro students have improved persistence and credit accumulation, and statistically significantly better grade point averages.

Midlands Technical College: Improving Academic Success for At-Risk Two-Year College Students

Beginning in the Spring of 2007, Midlands Technical College began implementation of a project designed to ascertain the factors that contribute to the academic success of first-time, at-risk community college students. The project was supported by the U.S. Department of Education Title III-A, Strengthening Institutions program. Students whose entrance test scores indicated a need for extensive remediation in reading were divided into two groups during their first semester in college: an experimental group, which was established as a learning community with the services of a Retention Advocate, intensive tutoring in reading, and other services; and a control group. The study compared postsecondary success for the two groups of students over a five-year period based on persistence, reading skills improvement, and average GPA.

For the purposes of this study, “at risk” students were defined as those who entered the college scoring below 61 on the COMPASS-R (reading) or below 35 on the ASSET Reading test. At the outset in 2007, more than 50 percent of students enrolling at MTC were underprepared for college-level work based on their entering COMPASS and/or ASSET test scores. These numbers appeared to be increasing, as enrollment of developmental studies students had grown 10.8 percent between fall of 2002 and fall of 2005. Students entering the institution with skills significantly below that of the average American middle school student were overwhelming the current developmental education program. This situation called for changes in the developmental studies program for these “at risk” students.

Northeast Alabama Community College: Enhancing Student Engagement with Technology

New and exciting applications of technology-enabled learning validate that it has the power to dramatically improve achievement, educational outcomes and retention. Yet the cost of technology, its rapid evolution, and the special knowledge and skills required of its users pose substantial barriers to contextualized learning. Even without educational technology, classrooms are in information overload putting students and instructors on the brink of drowning in data. Immediate innovations in, pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment must be coupled with the usage of instructional technology such as web-based learning, and online teaching and learning in order to produce improvements in the educational outcomes. Without substantial and extended professional development in the innovative models of teaching and learning that instructional technology makes affordable and sustainable, many instructors and students will not use these devices to their full potential.

Truckee Meadows Community College: Success First Program

Internal research by Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) has shown that without intervention and an academically-structured program, low-income, first-generation, first-time students have been unable to complete even one semester, and are at high risk of dropping out of college. Participants in TMCC’s proven student intervention program, Success First, are more likely to enroll in higher level college classes, to be enrolled full- as compared to part-time, the have a 2.0+ GPA, and to remain enrolled at TMCC after their first semester.

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)