New Community College Report Says Using Key Comparisons Can Inspire Improved Practices

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), a national assessment for community and technical colleges initiated in 2007 by The University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), has released a new report titled "Benchmarking and Benchmarks: Effective Practice with Entering Students." The report introduces six SENSE benchmarks of effective practice with entering students and demonstrates how colleges can use the process of benchmarking to evaluate and improve institutional performance and student success.

"There is a growing body of evidence about what works in improving outcomes for community college students," says Dr. Kay McClenney, CCCSE director. "We are seeing increasing numbers of colleges undertaking the courageous work of benchmarking to help them use data from their students and evidence regarding effective educational practice to strengthen student learning, persistence and attainment. It can offer an important reminder to ask whether being average is good enough."

According to McClenney, the report comes at a time when the challenges for students entering community colleges are sobering. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) show that while 79 percent of community college students state that their goal is to earn an associate degree, fewer than half do so. Nationally, about half drop out before their second year of college. Others stay in school but struggle with developmental courses.

"Community colleges across the country are experiencing great influxes of entering students at a time of decreased financial support," says McClenney. Referring to rigorous goals for increasing college graduation established by President Barack Obama and several major foundations, she adds, "'Business as usual' won't work if we ever hope to address the unacceptably low retention rates among entering students. To put it bluntly, students can't graduate if they don't make it through the first term."

"Benchmarking and Benchmarks" features data from 50,327 students who participated in the survey during the fourth and fifth weeks of the 2009 fall academic term at 120 participating community colleges in 31 states. The report is organized around six benchmarks of effective educational practice with entering students. The six benchmarks are: early connections, high expectations and aspirations, clear academic plan and pathway, effective track to college readiness, engaged learning, and academic and social support network. Each benchmark is presented with data from the SENSE survey and student comments from qualitative research conducted through the Center's Initiative on Student Success.

Since 2003, the Center's Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) has provided colleges with national benchmarks for effective educational practice in community colleges.

"The SENSE benchmarks now help colleges focus on students' experiences during the first critical weeks of college," says Dr. Angela Oriano-Darnall, assistant director for SENSE. "SENSE provides a more focused look at a particular area of concern."

Among the survey data highlighted in the report are these findings:

  • Nearly three quarters of respondents (72 percent) agree or strongly agree that they felt welcome when they first came to the college.
  • While almost half of respondents (49 percent) agree or strongly agree that their colleges provided them with adequate information about financial assistance, only a third (33 percent) agree or strongly agree that a college staff member helped them determine whether they personally qualified for financial assistance.
  • Seven in 10 (70 percent) agree or strongly agree that an adviser helped them identify the courses they needed to take during their first semester/quarter, but nearly one third (31 percent) disagree or strongly disagree that an adviser helped them set academic goals and create a plan for achieving them.
  • While 20 percent of entering students have children living with them and 32 percent report working more than 20 hours per week, almost half (48 percent) disagree or strongly disagree that a college staff member talked with them about their commitments outside of school to help them figure out how many courses to take.
  • Nine of 10 students (90 percent) agree or strongly agree that they have the motivation to do what it takes to succeed in college, and most respondents (85 percent) believe they are prepared academically to succeed in college.
  • Despite high aspirations, some entering students fall into unproductive habits early. Within the first three weeks of class:
    • One third of respondents (33 percent) say they turned in an assignment late at least once, and almost one quarter (24 percent) report that they did not turn in an assignment at least once.
    • Close to half (43 percent) report coming to class without completing readings or assignments at least once.
    • More than a quarter (25 percent) report skipping class one or more times.
    • Eight percent report skipping class two or more times within the first three weeks.

"SENSE helps colleges focus their assessment efforts and improvement strategies on the critical early weeks of students' college experiences, with the goal of keeping more entering students engaged in school--the first step toward achieving their academic and career goals," says Oriano-Darnall.

Like its parent survey, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), SENSE is based on institutional practices and student behaviors that, per research, relate to student persistence and success. It is different in that it focuses on students' experiences during the college entry process and the first three weeks of class.

SENSE is open again for nationwide participation this fall. Colleges may register for SENSE 2010 until April 3. SENSE and the Initiative on Student Success are part of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which is in the College of Education's Community College Leadership Program. To learn more about SENSE and the Initiative on Student Success. Access a copy of the 2009 SENSE National Report (PDF).