Two out of three remedial students don’t earn a degree.
But learning communities that go beyond academic support can greatly improve retention for underprepared students, writes Katherine Mangan for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
For example, San Jacinto College‘s one-semester program, called Intentional Connections, provides the college’s least-prepared students with both a sense of belonging and academic support. Instead of a traditional remediation sequence, Intentional Connections places students into a group that takes three corequisite-style classes together in the same semester. The students are also assigned mentors and academic advisors who help them map out a path to graduation and a career.
The program is unusual in that it aims to support students with the most severe academic deficits, including those who were placed in special education classes or those who have severe literacy gaps despite having a high school diploma or GED.
“For me, this is a moral issue,” says Rebecca Goosen associate vice chancellor for college preparatory at San Jacinto. “How can I turn my back on these students?”
One of these students, Nicholas Coronado, explains that he had become frustrated in remedial classes and was even considering dropping out before he joined Intentional Connections. “Why waste my time and money for a class that doesn’t count for my degree? I didn’t want to be one of those developmental students,” said Coronado. “It was embarrassing, and I was stubborn. I figured those job opportunities are going to be gone by the time I finish.”
At first, many students in the program don’t see the connection between what they’re learning in class and their future career, writes Mangan. And some don’t know why they’re in college at all.
Gwendolyn Berry, who coordinates the learning communities at San Jacinto’s north campus, explains that, at the start of the program, “We have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting where I ask them bluntly, ‘Why are you here?'”
The program also goes beyond academic and career support to provide students with a sense of community. Because they take three classes together, the students form a supportive network, carpool to class, and help each other with homework assignments.
“Sometimes it surprises me when other people ask me for help and I tell them; it helps me understand it more,” says Hayleigh Reuther, a student-parent enrolled in the program. She adds that not wanting to let them down “helps you stay motivated and involved and coming to class. When we’re together, I feel pretty unstoppable.”
Since implementing the Intentional Connections program, San Jacinto has seen significant improvements in retention. Eighty-six percent of the students who enrolled in the program in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018 were still enrolled in the college the following semester, and half are still enrolled today, writes Mangan.
“I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but I had people who had my back,” says Coronado, who now works as a student ambassador for the learning community. “Look where I am now—I’m almost done.”
Other corequisite programs, like the Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County, also work to create and strengthen bonds between participants. In these programs, “[s]tudents get to know one another, and individual professors, more than they would in a typical cafeteria approach where they go to different classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with different professors and different classmates,” says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “When you see people with equally challenging lives working and going to school, it gives you a sense of what’s possible.”
And at Lake Area Technical Institute, the graduation and transfer rate is more than 70%, thanks to the college’s learning communities, says Wyner. The learning communities place students in a cohort to encourage collaboration, and remedial coursework is offered to students who need it during lunch or between classes. “All of that is built into the structure of the college,” says Wyner. “We’d call them learning communities on steroids” (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/24).