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Community college students’ educational experiences captured in influential University of Texas at Austin survey

‘High-risk’ community college students who come to college more motivated and engaged than their peers are reporting less successful educational outcomes, according to a national survey out of The University of Texas at Austin.

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AUSTIN, Texas—“High-risk” community college students who come to college more motivated and engaged than their peers are reporting less successful educational outcomes, according to a national survey out of The University of Texas at Austin.

Results from the 2005 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) show that when there are differences in engagement between low- and high-risk students, the students typically described as high-risk—including less academically prepared students, students of color, first-generation college students and nontraditional college-age learners—are more engaged in the college experience than other students. For example, they are less likely to come to class unprepared, more likely to interact frequently with instructors outside of the classroom and they use support services more often. On the other hand, many of these students report lower educational aspirations, grades and persistence rates. Although working harder, they are getting poorer results, says Dr. Kay McClenney, program director for the CCSSE.

According to McClenney, research on undergraduate education offers evidence that “engagement” is associated with college success. The more actively engaged students are—with college faculty and staff, with other students, with the subject matter they are studying—the more likely they are to learn and to persist in achieving their academic goals. 

The CCSSE survey, which is based on that research, assesses the degree of student engagement by asking students how they spend their time, about the ways they interact with faculty and other students, the degree of academic challenge they face and the kinds of support they receive from their colleges. The report provides national results of the survey and profiles students who are “challenging the odds.” 

Community colleges now enroll almost half of all undergraduate students in American public colleges and universities, states McClenney. Because of their commitment to open admissions, they serve disproportionately high numbers of students who are statistically at risk of not completing a college degree. Risk factors identified through research include:

  • not entering college directly after high school
  • being a first-generation college student
  • attending college part-time
  • being academically under-prepared for college-level work;
  • being a single parent/ caring for children at home
  • being financially independent from parents
  • working more than 30 hours per week

Students attending community college are three to four times more likely to reflect four or more of these risk factors than their counterparts in four-year colleges and universities. With this data in mind, one key purpose of the CCSSE survey is to help community colleges assess their educational practices so they can improve student learning and persistence. This year’s findings provide insight into how community colleges can help more students—high-risk, low-risk and those in between—achieve their educational goals.

“Community colleges and their students clearly face a tough mix of challenges,” says McClenney, “but what we’re seeing is that many of these students who bring the greatest challenges to college, if provided the right kinds of experiences and supports, will work hard, reach out, connect—and, hopefully, persevere.” 

For example, nontraditional-age female students (women who are 25 and older) as a group exhibit several risk factors. They are more likely to work more than 30 hours per week, spend more time caring for dependents and are less likely to enter college directly after high school. They are less likely to aspire to transfer to a four-year college or university and more likely to state that a change of career is their goal. Yet overall, these older women are more engaged than either traditional-age women or men.

Survey results indicate that these nontraditional-age women students would benefit from services designed to raise their aspirations so that they get more out of the intensive effort they are devoting to their studies. In turn, other students could benefit from engagement strategies, such as academic advising, that would instill the nontraditional-age females’ focus and goals.

The CCSSE report also features results from the first national administration of the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement. Responses from almost 3,600 faculty members illuminate faculty roles, their use of time and their educational practices. A provocative finding, according to McClenney, is that faculty members and students typically report divergent perceptions of student experiences in their colleges.

“Looking at student engagement, performance and success for various sub-groups of students often reveals gaps that call for further attention,” says McClenney. “This type of scrutiny is critical for community colleges—and universities too for that matter—that want to improve outcomes for students who traditionally have been underserved, both in public schools and at the college level. CCSSE’s member colleges are on that case.”

Survey findings are presented in a CCSSE report titled “Engaging Students, Challenging the Odds.” The 257 colleges that participated in CCSSE in 2005 enroll about 21 percent of the total credit-student population in the nation’s community colleges, and more than 133,000 students from these institutions are included in the 2005 CCSSE sample.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement Web site displays key national findings and results for individual colleges. The award-winning Web site aims to promote public understanding of the work of community colleges, support institutional improvement and advance public discussion about innovative ways to define and examine quality in higher education. 

The CCSSE is produced and administered by the Community College Leadership Program in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration.

For more information contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512-232-3910.