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Lessons emerge from research on students

A national report released Nov. 12 highlights key findings from five years of research on the educational experiences of community college students.

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A national report released Nov. 12 highlights key findings from five years of research on the educational experiences of community college students. The report, “Committing to Student Engagement: Reflections on CCSSE’s First Five Years,” offers five lessons learned through the annual examination of institutional quality and five strategies that work in college efforts to improve student learning, persistence and attainment.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), which is grounded in research about effective educational practice, assesses the degree of students’ engagement in education through questions about how students spend their time, the ways they interact with faculty and other students, the degree of academic challenge they experience and the kinds of support they receive from their college. For the last five years, CCSSE has been helping a growing number of colleges – 548 institutions in 48 states – use data to improve student achievement. Lessons learned in these first five years of work include the following:

Lesson #1: Be intentional. Engagement doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design. Community colleges serve high percentages of students who juggle school, work, and family care commitments, and who attend college part-time. Community colleges, therefore, must be deliberate, aggressively creating opportunities to involve students so that engagement becomes central to every student’s experience.

Lesson #2: Engagement matters for all students, but it matters more for some than for others. Throughout higher education, there are consistent, unacceptable gaps between outcomes for some student groups academically under prepared students, students of color, first-generation students and outcomes for their peers. CCSSE data suggest that college efforts to promote higher levels of engagement for these high-risk groups can produce improved outcomes.

Lesson #3: Part-time students and faculty are the reality of community colleges – and typically are not adequately addressed in improvement efforts. Close to two-thirds of community college students attend college part-time, and about two-thirds of community college faculty members teach part-time. There is ample evidence that attending college part-time puts students at greater risk of not attaining their educational goals. CCSSE data show that part-time students report lower levels of engagement than their full-time peers, a finding that may be unsurprising but calls nonetheless for strategies that will more effectively engage part-time students.

Like part-time students, most part-time faculty members spend limited time on campus. Data from the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (CCFSSE) indicate that part-time faculty respondents spend significantly less time with students outside the classroom than full-time faculty respondents. For example, fewer than half of part-time faculty respondents, compared with nearly three-quarters of full-time faculty respondents, say they typically spend up to eight hours per week interacting with students outside the classroom.

Lesson #4: Data are our friends.
Since its inception, CCSSE has been encouraging colleges to build a campus culture in which administrators, faculty and staff use data to understand students’ experiences, target improvements and monitor progress. Community colleges participating in CCSSE are discovering that increased transparency about institutional performance builds external credibility while sparking internal commitment to improvement.

Lesson #5: Look behind the numbers. Survey data answer some questions – and raise others. To understand the human experiences behind the numbers, CCSSE encourages colleges to use focus groups and other qualitative research to learn more about what helps community college students succeed – and what trips them up.

The report may be downloaded free of charge at www.ccsse.org. CCSSE is part of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin. Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Leadership Program, conducted the survey.