High Expectations and Strong Support Systems Boost Community College Student Success, Survey Says

Higher expectations and generous student support are essential for student success, according to findings from the 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) conducted by the Community College Leadership Program in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.

The report, which is released annually, presents data on community college students nationwide, from the percentage of students who work full-time while in school to the frequency with which they participate in study groups and how far they commute to reach the campus. Survey results present a detailed snapshot of students' educational experiences, the challenges community colleges face and how colleges are responding to the numerous challenges.

Findings from the 2008 survey highlight the need for faculty members and student services staff to hold high expectations for student achievement and offer a comprehensive array of support services that will help ensure student success.

"No one rises to low expectations," said Dr. Vincent Tinto, the Distinguished Professor of Higher Education in Syracuse University's School of Education and a noted expert on college student retention.

Community colleges typically serve a much more diverse student population than four-year universities, and the CCSSE offers data depicting the multiple challenges confronted by many students. For example, almost two-thirds of community college students attend college part-time, 56 percent work more than 20 hours a week, 30 percent have children living with them, well over a third are first-generation college students and almost 30 percent come from families with incomes under $20,000 annually.

The CCSSE, which is based on research about effective educational practice, assesses student engagement through questions about the effort students invest in their studies, ways they interact with faculty and other students, degree of academic challenge they experience and the kinds of support they receive from their colleges. The 2008 report, titled "High Expectations and High Support," incorporates data from more than 343,000 students from 585 colleges in 48 states.

Key findings of the CCSSE included the following:

Student Effort:

  • Seventy-one percent of students surveyed indicate their college encourages them to spend significant amounts of time studying, either "quite a bit" or "very much;" however, 67 percent of full-time students spend 10 or fewer hours preparing for class in an average week.
  • Twenty-four percent report that they always come to class prepared.

Academic Challenge:

  • About half of survey respondents report that they often or very often worked harder than they thought they could to meet an instructor's standards; 11 percent said they never did so.
  • Twenty-nine percent of full-time students report that they have written four or fewer papers or reports of any length during the current school year.
  • Sixty-eight percent indicate that their exams are relatively to extremely challenging, while nine percent find them relatively to extremely easy.

Support for Learners:

  • Fewer than half (45 percent) of community college students report that the college provides the financial support they need to afford their education. Further, when asked about factors that would be most likely to contribute to their dropping out of classes or leaving college, the same percentage cite "lack of finances."

The 2008 survey included a special focus on student financial aid, using items jointly developed with the Congress-appointed Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Of CCSSE respondents, only 56 percent of them reported having completed the standard application for federal financial aid. Forty-six percent of part-time students and 31 percent of full-time students reported receiving no financial aid of any kind. Sixteen percent were unaware of the financial aid process.

Using 2008 survey data, analysts concluded that community college students who are most engaged are:

  • full-time students
  • over the age of 24
  • seeking professional credentials
  • female
  • black
  • international students
  • financially dependent, using funds other than their own income or savings to pay for most of their tuition
  • working fewer than 30 hours a week
  • students who have completed 30 or more credit hours
  • students who have taken developmental courses
  • students who have taken study skills courses
  • students who have participated in orientation
  • students who have participated in learning communities

"As illustrated by a growing body of research and the data presented in this report," said Dr. Kay McClenney, CCSSE director, "consistent, rigorous and explicit high expectations for students and institutions, coupled with timely, effective and inescapable student support, are necessary. And, as demonstrated by a growing number of colleges, both are possible. We salute those teachers, advisors, counselors, tutors and numerous others who are committed to making the possible real in the lives of students."

Find out more about the CCSSE or download this year's survey free of charge.