It’s no secret that community college students face a range of barriers that can prevent them from graduating. Aside from working towards a degree, many community college students are also raising children, working full time, or caring for relatives.
To better understand the specific challenges that community college students face, researchers at North Carolina State University surveyed 6,000 students from 10 community colleges across nine states, reports Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed.
“We’ve moved beyond the notion of satisfaction and engagement, which most student surveys tap into,” says Paul Umbach, a higher education professor at NC State and co-author of the report. “We wanted to help campuses identify areas where they can move the needle on student success.”
According to the Revealing Institutional Strengths and Challenges (RISC) survey, here are the top five challenges that community college students say impede their academic success:
1. Work (34%)
2. Paying expenses (34%)
3. Family and friends (30%)
4. Online classes (21%)
5. Parking on campus (21%)
Not surprisingly, work was the biggest challenge students said they face. Of the roughly 2,100 students who said work was their biggest challenge, 61% indicated that the number of hours they work don’t leave them enough time to study and 49% indicated that the pay they receive isn’t enough to cover their expenses.
In fact, of the 2,055 students who said paying expenses is a challenge, 71% indicated that they have the most difficulty paying living expenses. Students also reported having difficulty paying for books, software, and other supplies (58%); tuition and fees (55%); and childcare (11%).
And 30% of students reported that juggling the demands of family and college, dealing with family and friends’ health problems, and finding childcare also pose considerable challenges. Of these students, 11% said their biggest challenge is that their family does not support them going to college.
But while community college students often cite work, finances, and family obligations as challenges, the researchers said they were surprised to see that students also cited parking and online classes as barriers.
“The biggest surprise we had was parking,” says Steve Porter, a higher education professor at NC State and co-author of the report. “This is a big issue for them because of personal schedules or work schedules.” When students get stuck looking for an available parking space, they end up late for class or for exams, he explains. Finding parking on or near campus was an issue for 86% of the 1,300 students who identified parking as a challenge.
Although online learning is often touted as a way to increase access to education, 53% of respondents reported difficulty learning online, and 44% reported having problems with the lack of interaction with faculty. Nearly 40% reported having difficulty keeping up with online classes that didn’t have regular class times. “Online education can work for community college students and is an important part of student access, but there are no silver bullets,” notes Phil Hill, co-founder of Mindwires Consulting.
Still, despite the issues they face, community college students were optimistic about their education. Ninety-five percent of students said they would recommend their college to a friend, and roughly 50% said their college is worth more than what they are paying. “They do see a better life for themselves, and they have an overriding optimism about the potential of college,” says Lauren Walizer, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy (Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 2/19).
Community college administrators must try to balance the scheduling needs of students and faculty amid aggregate declines in enrollment.