Though faculty-mentored research isn’t the norm at community colleges, a new study suggests that community college students who participate in research experiences receive a myriad of benefits, including improved transfer and graduation rates, STEM retention, and overall academic success.
To conduct the study, researchers Ron Nerio, Althea Webber, Effie MacLachlan, David Lopatto, and Avrom Caplan conducted a quantitative longitudinal analysis of student outcomes for 556 students who participated in the City University of New York Research Scholars Program (CRSP)—a program that provides community college students in the CUNY system with year-long, faculty-mentored research experiences—between 2014 and 2017. The researchers also analyzed student surveys and held faculty mentor focus groups.
CRSP, which launched in 2014, pairs one faculty mentor with one to three students. Together, they complete a total of 400 hours of STEM research experience across CUNY’s seven community colleges and three comprehensive schools. Students in the program learn everything from lab safety to scientific writing, and work with their faculty mentors to carry out a yearlong project that culminates in a poster session and oral presentation.
The study found that CRSP students were not only more likely to still be enrolled at a CUNY institution 17 months after completing the program, they were also more likely to persist in STEM. “These… findings indicate that participation in CRSP promotes STEM retention and increases the likelihood that students will graduate in a STEM discipline,” the study reads.
Students who participated in CRSP also indicated that they were more likely to transfer to a research-intensive four-year university within or outside of CUNY, thanks to the program. CRSP students also reported a greater sense of belonging on campus, and were more than twice as likely as non-CRSP students to say that they enjoyed college.
Still, the most influential aspect of CRSP is likely the mentorships, the researchers note. “As mentors expose students to research methods and laboratory practices, they are coaching them to be self-directed and to take ownership of their research projects, and they are demonstrating for students what it is like to be a working scientist,” the researchers write. “They are cultivating growth mind-sets and identification with their disciplines.”
In fact, 85% of CRSP students said that their mentors helped them develop scientific skills and knowledge and self-reported learning gains above the national average. Even more, 72% of CRSP students said that their mentors genuinely cared about them as individuals, while 62% said their mentors contributed to their sense of self-confidence.
It’s no secret that mentorships improve student outcomes. Faculty mentors play a critical role in encouraging underrepresented students and identifying students who could use more support, according to EAB research.
Faculty mentors also positively influence “not only the objective measures of academic advancement but the development of qualities such as persistence, confidence, and a scholarly outlook,” the study reads.
These qualities are particularly important for community college students, many of whom are raising children, working full time, or caring for relatives in addition to earning a degree. For instance, about two-thirds of CRSP students held external jobs. And 60% of those students said their jobs made it more difficult to fulfill academic responsibilities.
But faculty mentors helped CRSP students cope with the demands of both the program and outside obligations. “It is a testimony to their tenacity and to the encouragement they receive from mentors that most CRSP students are able to take on a research program, complete their course work, and continue working while still meeting the requirements for graduation,” write the researchers.
I can’t tell you how many times a provost has asked me, “But what do I do about my faculty?” as they are thinking about rolling out a new student success initiative. Frankly, it’s a fair question. Despite all the investments we’ve made in student success over the past few years, few campuses have fully engaged their faculty when reorganizing to better support students. It doesn’t have to be this way, and we are beginning to see a change.
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