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Dr. Jaime McLeod of Sandhills Community College tells us what we should know about student retention rates in North Carolina Community Colleges. Doctor Jaime McLeod, is the Distance Learning Design Specialist and Associate Professor at Sandhills Community College in Moore County. He recently had a *paper on the effects of online student success courses on student retention rates at a NC community college published in the Student Success Journal, an international, scholarly publication that explores experiences of students in tertiary education. Doctor McLeod talks to us today about the surprising results of his research and its implications for the parents of high school students about to enter a NC community college and first year community college students as well.
Doctor McLeod, in addition to your having taught Digital Media and Computer courses at SCC since joining the college in 2006, you have also helped many students and faculty learn about the basics of distance learning there as well. And more recently your research paper about community college student retention rates that was published in the **Student Success Journal shed light on a troubling subject that may not have previously been examined in this depth previously.
Can you tell us what your concerns and expectations were about student retention rates before you began your research?
I was a former community college student myself, so I am familiar with the struggles community college students face. The completion rate baseline for the North Carolina Community College System is 35.9% with an average completion rate of 43.4%. While many community colleges perform above these numbers, retaining students at two-year colleges remains a serious challenge. As a comparison, typical completion rates for the University of North Carolina System schools are as high as 60% or higher over the same period (6 years).
What factors contributed to your desire to perform your own detailed research on this subject?
It was a part of the graduate school process. Research is a key component to any doctoral program. Retention is one of the most important issues in higher education. It was a perfect topic. College completion is often the difference between earning enough money to have a comfortable life or struggling just to pay rent. I have a strong desire to see students succeed and become valuable members of the workforce.
What did you initially discover about student retention rates? What exactly is a student retention rate and why are these so important?
For two-year colleges, retention of a college student from day one to graduation day is low. Retention measures whether a student returns to take courses in future semesters. It could be for a semester, a year or to full degree completion. Key college stakeholders often use retention and completion as a standard measure of success.
Why do you think that this rate is so low?
Community colleges have an open-door policy. While most universities place several restrictions on who can enroll, community colleges accept almost everyone. This open door is one of community college’s greatest attributes, yet it is also a weakness when it comes to completion rates. Universities can raise admissions requirements, which helps to boost success rates.
Students with high grade point averages, impressive standardized test scores, and a long track record of success will likely succeed wherever they go. Steep entrance standards help ensure high retention and completion rates. For community colleges, retention and completion rates are not as straight forward.
Community colleges must focus their student success efforts almost exclusively after the student enrolls. Student success courses are a great way to provide students with an introduction to the college and its services. Success courses typically last a semester and offer students an orientation to the college in the first semester. These success courses are among many retention efforts at two-year colleges.
And were there already some early programs in place to try to improve these rates? What were these, how did they work, and how successful were these?
Community colleges always have programs in place to improve retention. Various forms of developmental education and financial aid services/scholarships are two conventional methods community colleges use to help retain students. Student success courses, building community through campus events and easy access to services are important as well. One single imitative is never enough. Each retention effort works together to create an environment for student success.
What might be done in the future to further improve these statistics?
Better understanding students and their needs should always be a top priority. Needs change over time and colleges should stay ahead of these changes. Contextualization plays a key role in improving student success. Students must be aware of how their classes connect. If leaners do not see the value (or future value) in a course, it creates a barrier in motivating them to complete their degree.
What about the cost of these initiatives?
Retention initiatives vary widely in cost, and few are simple or inexpensive. Effective practices include shifting staff locations to make it easier for students to access services, purchasing software to help track struggling/at-risk students, creating fun campus events, raising money to fund scholarships and utilizing various types of student readiness measures. The costs for each of these can be as high as the institution desires.
Measures to ensure students are “ready” are generally the least expensive. Large scholarship initiatives require a tremendous institutional and community commitment to ensure the funds will last. Campus events, such as sports or entertainment, can easily become costly. Monitoring software that highlights at-risk students requires staff and software costs. Retention is a campus-wide effort. Any attempt to improve retention involves buy-in from the entire institution and financial support.
Should the parents of high school students that are soon to enter one of our community colleges be concerned? Why? What can they do to help?
Of course. Being prepared for college is just as important for community college students as students who are heading off to a university. One of the most beneficial ways parents can help their children become better college students is to teach them not to take shortcuts. College is a far more challenging environment than high school. Skipping reading assignments, rushing through practice work and poor class attendance can easily start a young college student off in the wrong direction.
I encourage parents of high school students to enroll their child in an early college program and let them experience college while still in high school. Teach your high schooler to learn material so well that they can teach it to someone else. Instead of studying for the test, tell them to study as if they were responsible for teaching the material to the class. If these high school students develop good learning habits early, college will be much more fun and rewarding. Community colleges offer a wonderful opportunity for students of all achievement levels. Starting a young college student at a community college is a wise choice.
An Abstract of this paper may be viewed or downloaded at https://studentsuccessjournal.org/article/view/1095
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*The effects on student retention by implementing contextualized, program-specific learning modules in an online student success course
** The Student Success Journal is an international, open-access, peer-reviewed, scholarly publication exploring the experiences of students in tertiary education. The Journal provides the opportunity to disseminate current research and innovative good practice about students’ tertiary learning experiences, which are supported by evidence.
Retention remains a problem at two year institutions in the United States. One of the most important statistical figures reflecting this challenge is student completion rates.
Completion rates at two year institutions are a meager 27% nationally six years after the student first enrolls at an institution.
84% named student success initiatives as a top four priority at their institution. Over 90% of the educational administrators interviewed placed retention efforts as one of the most crucial initiatives
Contextualized learning is a method of delivering instruction that makes the students’ learning experience more relevant to a students’ everyday life and aides them in seeing the relevance of the course material
There was 10% increase in one semester and one-year retention rates for students attending a redesigned student success course.