Survey Looks at Ways to Retain New Community College Students

Preliminary results of the pilot Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) suggest that if more community college students team up with classmates to tackle course requirements and avail themselves of financial aid and advising services, retention rates may improve.

Researchers noted that significant numbers of community college students drop out before completing college credits and about half do not return to college after their first year.

SENSE began in November 2007 to help community college leaders understand new students' experiences, improve understanding of why some students succeed and others do not and target strategies to boost successful learning outcomes.

Among survey data highlighted in the report titled "Starting Right: A First Look at Engaging Entering Students," preliminary results indicate:

  • 20 percent of entering students strongly agreed with the statement, "The very first time I came to this college I felt welcome."
  • 64 percent of entering students did not attend student success courses even though recent research points to the potentially positive impact of student participation in student success courses.
  • 23 percent of entering students reported never working with other students on class projects during their first three weeks of class.
  • 41 percent of students had not used academic planning/advising services by the end of their first three weeks of class.
  • 67 percent of entering students reported they were told they could apply for financial aid but only 29 percent reported that a financial aid staff member helped them analyze their needs for financial assistance.
  • 66 percent of students reported that they never worked with classmates outside of class to prepare assignments during their first three weeks of class.
  • 40 percent of traditional-age students and 62 percent of nontraditional-age students reported completing all assignments and readings before coming to class.

Like its parent survey, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), SENSE is based on college practices and student behaviors shown by research to correlate with student persistence and success. The new survey focuses on students' experiences during the college entry process and the critical first three weeks of class.

The SENSE pilot results came from the responses of 13,233 students from 22 community colleges in eight states, and the survey was administered directly to student focus groups during the fourth and fifth weeks of the 2007 fall semester.

"The new survey's preliminary results," says SENSE project coordinator Angela Oriano-Darnall, "spotlight tough but important questions for discussion in community colleges. How well do we understand entering students and what they experience as they come through our doors? Who is falling through the cracks? How might we rethink and then redesign our institutional practices to help more students persist and succeed?

"Community colleges are known for their 'open door' policy and commitment to offering education opportunities to all Americans. For many students, this open door has turned into a revolving door, and we just want to assist colleges as they work very hard to retain their students, facilitate learning and see the students go on to successful careers or four-year colleges. We're extremely fortunate to be working with MetLife Foundation Initiative on Student Success to ensure that student voices are heard in discussions about increasing student academic success."

The SENSE and CCSSE surveys are administered by the College of Education's Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin. Houston Endowment Inc., Lumina Foundation for Education and the MetLife Foundation are supporting SENSE with start-up funding.

In fall 2008, survey administrators plan to conduct a national test with almost 100 community colleges, and in 2009, participation in the survey will be open to all U.S. community colleges.

To learn more about the survey, please visit For additional information on SENSE, feel free to contact Dr. Angela Oriano-Darnall at