New Survey Findings Urge Community Colleges to "Imagine Success"

The Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), a national assessment of community and technical colleges, released its 2009 survey findings in a report that reveals even though almost 70 percent of students express a strong intent to succeed and high aspirations, around half are dropping out of school before their second year.

SENSE is a project of The University of Texas at Austin's Community College Center for Student Engagement, which is in the College of Education's Department of Educational Administration.

This year's report, titled "Imagine Success: Engaging Entering Students," focuses on the need for major redesign of college practices and suggests six "design principles" that successful colleges have implemented to retain students and foster academic achievement.

"Given today's unprecedented economic challenges, community and technical colleges across the country are caught in a conundrum of decreasing financial support and increasing student need," said Dr. Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Center for Student Engagement, which developed the survey. "That reality collides with the fact that the way our colleges currently are designed typically produces significant student attrition in the early weeks and first year of college. That situation has to change, for students' sake and for the country's."

"Imagine Success" is based on data from 57,547 students who participated in the survey during the fourth and fifth weeks of the 2008 fall academic term at 89 participating community colleges in 29 states and the Marshall Islands.

The report is organized around six features found in colleges that are designed for student success. The six keys to achievement are:

  • benefit of personal connections
  • high expectations and aspirations
  • a plan and a pathway to success
  • an effective track to college readiness
  • engaged learning
  • an integrated network of financial, social and academic support

Each of the six principles is presented with data from the SENSE survey; student, faculty and administrator comments and other findings from qualitative research conducted through the Center's Starting Right Initiative; and examples from colleges that illustrate successful implementation of the principles.

Preliminary findings highlighted in the report include data on student motivation, participation and skills attainment:

  • 68 percent of entering students strongly agree that they have motivation to do what it takes to succeed in college, but one in five is not sure when he or she plans to take classes again
  • 76 percent of entering students agree or strongly agree that an advisor helped them select their courses but only 39 percent indicated that an advisor helped them set academic goals and create a plan for achievement
  • nearly a third (32 percent) of entering students report they turned at least one assignment in late; 25 percent failed to turn in one or more assignments; 47 percent report they came to class unprepared; 29 percent say that they skipped class; and 10 percent report skipping class multiple times - all during the first three weeks of their first academic term
  • 22 percent say they never worked with other students on a project or assignment during class and 69 percent never did so outside of class.
  • 27 percent report never asking for help from an instructor regarding questions or problems related to class, while 71 percent say they never discussed ideas from readings or assignments with instructors outside of class
  • 29 percent of SENSE respondents are enrolled in developmental reading; 32 percent are enrolled in developmental writing; and 54 percent are enrolled in developmental math
  • 58 percent of entering students who enrolled in a student success course developed a written plan for how and when they can achieve their academic goals, compared to 30 percent of all entering students
  • fewer than a third of entering students were aware of key student services during the first three weeks of college

"SENSE helps colleges focus their assessment efforts and improvement strategies on the critical early weeks of students' college experiences," said Dr. Angela Oriano-Darnall, assistant director of SENSE, "with the goal of keeping more entering students engaged in school, which is the first step toward achieving their academic and professional goals. SENSE's unique sampling provides rare insights from entering students - not only those who are on-track to successfully complete programs of study, but also those who may drop out before the end of their first academic term."

Like its parent survey, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), SENSE is based on institutional practices and student behaviors that research shows are related to student persistence and success but focuses on students' experiences during the college entry process and the critical first three weeks of class.

SENSE is inviting community colleges nationwide to participate in the fall 2009 survey. Those who are interested have until April 3, 2009, to register at SENSE is supported through start-up funding from Houston Endowment Inc. and Lumina Foundation for Education. The Starting Right Initiative is supported by the MetLife Foundation and Houston Endowment Inc.

Access study findings and learn more about SENSE and Starting Right at