EAB’s Tara Zirkel is joined by Center for Community College Student Engagement Executive Director Dr. Linda Garcia, as well as Associate Director of Publications, Dr. Courtney Adkins, to discuss new research on student engagement. The three unpack recent criticisms leveled at the community college sector and share new data that point to a number of bright spots.
They also offer advice to community college leaders on ways to make measurable improvements in student retention and enrollment.
0:00:13.0 Intro: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. In recent episodes, we focused on some of the institutional shortcomings that are undoubtedly contributing to the enrollment downturn at community colleges. On today's episode, leaders from the Center for Community College Student Engagement point to new studies that highlight important, but potentially overlooked factors that can boost student retention. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:44.8 Tara Zirkel: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I'm Tara Zirkel, a Director of Strategic Research at EAB. Today, community colleges are being asked to rise to new challenges. Across the country, community colleges must respond to the increasing expectations for quality, performance, and accountability set by governing boards, state and federal governments, accrediting organizations, and the public. Key among those expectations is that colleges should emphasize assessment and improvement of student retention and student learning. Housed within the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Community College Student Engagement team provides information on student engagement, a key indicator of learning and therefore of the quality of community colleges. The CCSSE survey administered to students yearly helps community colleges to assess institutional practices and student behaviors that are correlated highly with learning and retention. Additionally, this team researches best practices and trends related to community college success as a way to grow the community of practice within the two-year sphere. So really excited to have joining me today from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, Dr. Courtney Adkins, Associate Director of Publications and Dr. Linda Garcia, Executive Director. Thank you both for joining today.
0:02:02.0 Dr. Linda Garcia: It is great to be here, Tara. Thank you for inviting us. We look forward to this conversation with you.
0:02:07.6 Dr. Courtney Adkins: Yeah, thank you so much, Tara. Great to be here.
0:02:11.7 TZ: So for folks who might be a little bit unfamiliar with your work, would you be able to give us a quick overview of your mission and the different ways you support community colleges?
0:02:21.6 DG: Yeah, that's a great question, Tara. I love telling the story, which leads me to the mission of CCSSE. Years ago, CCSSE interviewed a student named James and he was interviewed three times in one semester. He was a brand new student. And in that first month of that fall semester, James talks about how he's excited for college. One month later after that, his excitement kind of dwindles. And he says, college is kind of hard, but he's gonna stick through it. One month later after that, in that same first semester, James, his tone has changed, even the way he communicates. He's not confident in his journey at the college because he says school's not for everyone and he says he's one of those people. Something happened to James along the way from that first month in that fall semester to two, three months later. So this is where CCSSE comes into play to help community colleges help them to understand the student experience ao we don't have students like James fall into the cracks or they don't get to the finish line because students are coming to the community college with their hopes, their aspirations and their dreams, and they're relying on faculty, staff. Every single person at the college should get them to the finish line.
0:03:43.3 DG: And so CCSSE's mission, which really supports that story that I just told, we're here to deliver those aha moments about the student experience based on insights that matter to the community college. So we'll assist them plus policymakers using data, that information, just to understand how we can improve student learning, persistence, and attainment. Now, there are some ways that CCSSE absolutely helps community colleges in this... Understanding the student experience. We do it through data, we do it through focus group work, we do it through storytelling through our publications, and we do it through resources and tools and through our presentation, keynotes, workshops, and institutes. So briefly, I just wanna touch on each one. So the first one I said was data. So we have some surveys that we administer through the colleges. They administer our surveys. We have a couple of surveys. We have the Community College Service Student Engagement called CCSSE that's administered in our spring term.
0:04:45.6 DG: That's really about understanding the experience of mostly continuing students. We have a fall survey. That's a survey of entering student engagement. That's administered in the fourth, fifth weeks and that's for entering students. That's a different population. We also have one that it's in pilot right now. It's called DESSE or Dual Enrollment Survey of Student Engagement, looking at the experience of dually enrolled students. And we'll probably talk about that a little bit later. Then our other surveys, Race Ethnicity Survey, and it just helps colleges understand their student experience with racism, inclusion and belonging. So they get that data from the surveys and they will use the data to inform their strategic planning or inform their conversations on where they can improve on the student experience, but also where they can celebrate because colleges are working so hard. And so it's very important to take time to celebrate the things that they're doing well. The second one that I focused on... Mentioned was focus group work. So the data tells us what, but we wanna know the why we invite students into the conversations to help us develop that story and help us understand deeper on what matters to them.
0:05:57.4 DG: In fact, Tara, we celebrated our 20th anniversary and we asked ourselves, what has CCSSE learned about student engagement in these 20 years? And so when you go to our website, you're gonna see themes such as what students tell us that matter to them, having a plan matters, student support services matter, high expectations matter, relationships matter. So we give voice to the data through our focus group work. The third one that I mentioned was storytelling publications. And you're gonna hear from my colleague, Courtney. I call her CCSSE storyteller because she looks at the data, she looks at... Hears the voices of students. And so she'll put and draft and develop a story and lead that for CCSSE. And we've done many publications on that, like student basic needs, COVID, the working learner guided pathways mindset. But we also provide tools because there's so much data. Colleges are thinking, where do I start? That goes to research and tools. We provide them tools to have conversation starters. We guide them on how to start the conversation with their colleagues. And then lastly, colleges will invite us to do presentations or keynotes on their own data so we can make sense for it for them. So those are some ways how we support community colleges in the conversation about student experiences.
0:07:13.1 TZ: I love the point about where do I start? Because I can remember when I was on campus, we knew that we needed to do things and we knew we wanted to do them quickly, but finding the right starting point was something that we really grappled with. And one thing we're monitoring at EAB is obviously since over the past two or three years, how students engage with us and what student engagement looks like is a little bit different. And I think for some colleges, finding that starting point now might look different than finding that starting point a few years ago. And obviously suffice to say you collect a lot of data. So we would love to understand, can you share anything that's changed in what you've observed over the past two to three years in the data that you're collecting or what students are reporting?
0:08:00.7 DA: Yeah, Tara, I'd be happy to speak to that for you. I had some ideas about this, but mostly based on anecdotal evidence. So recently I was talking to our associate director of research, Mike Bohlig, and I said, "What has changed? What have you noticed when you're really looking and analyzing the data?" And what he did is he did a study where he looked at 350 colleges that participated before COVID. And then he looked at those same 350 colleges in either 2021 or 2022, so who participated quite recently. And he looked at their benchmark scores. With the CCSSE survey, we have five benchmarks. And these are just areas that we feel are very important and that the research and validation have shown to be very important to student engagement. There are things like active and collaborative learning, student faculty interactions, student effort, support for learners and so on. And what he found when he did this very rigorous study, he ran a t-test just to see what was statistically significant here. And so the area that decreased the most was active and collaborative learning. That's probably not that surprising to any of us, is it? Because the kinds of questions that are included in this benchmark are things like, have you worked with other students during class on projects? Have you worked with students outside of class on projects?
0:09:19.5 DA: Have you made a class presentation? Have you asked questions in class? And I think with the pandemic and the move for quite some time to the virtual classroom, it really took away some of those opportunities for that kind of collaboration. But the one thing that he told me that really heartened me was that the benchmark area that had increased the most since the pandemic was support for learners. And so this includes items such as how often have you visited with an academic advisor? Does this college support you financially to complete your education and to be successful? Are you receiving just the general support you need, non-academic wise that you need to be successful? And so that really spoke to me and said that even though the pandemic happened and colleges were forced to pivot overnight to a whole new type of instruction and a new type of communicating with students, they really took on that challenge and continue to support students. We released a report pretty early in the pandemic, and it was based on a survey that we ran in fall of 2020 to our entering student population.
0:10:38.2 DA: And one of the questions that we asked them in fall of 2020, very early in the semester, was does your college have support services to help you with stresses related to the pandemic? And over half of students said, "I don't know." And now that was fall of 2020. Now in spring of 2021, just a few months later, we asked the students taking that survey the very same question. And this time less than half said, "I don't know." So we saw a positive shift there. And really, I think what the data show, both the change in the benchmark data and those COVID data points, what they show is even though it was such a chaotic time for community colleges, they really were putting the focus on how do we support these students in the best way possible. So those are the data points that I would mention or the changes that I would mention that we've seen that I think are really interesting.
0:11:37.7 TZ: I know on the EAB side, we've spoken to lots of our partners and really seen folks double down on exactly that. So to your point, the non-academic students supports, the mental health students supports, investing in social workers that are on campus, investing in basic needs, making investments in customer service, overall, how do we interact with students on a kind of on a frontline level? So not surprised to hear that. And it's actually, I think one of the places where we've seen a lot of growth. We actually just hosted a session with College of Lake County yesterday. And basic needs is a place where they have gone all in. And they actually did some research on, to exactly your point, how aware their students are and found similar to you that prior to their efforts, that students were either unaware of resources on campus or thought maybe there was a cost associated with them or they weren't eligible for the services. And they too are starting to see the shift where students understand this is for me, which is obviously really a positive yardage basically for the two-year sphere.
0:12:44.1 TZ: And this is also really encouraging because I think recently in the media, there's been a lot of discussion about sort of how do two-year institutions interact with their students and discussion about enrollment declines and discussion about retention. And we recently had John Barkas on the podcast to dig into some of his recent reporting on the two-year space. And he's sympathetic to community college leaders in terms of the challenges they face, but he sort of, I would say, doesn't pull any punches in terms of outlining some of the cultural and process improvements he says are needed. I don't know if either of you read his article in the Hechinger Report on... But if so, I would love to understand to what extent you agree or disagree with his assertions?
0:13:32.4 DG: Yeah, Tara. Yes, we did read the report and thank you for mentioning that. So the article was interesting. I appreciate the challenges that he mentioned such as students spending time and money on courses that just don't transfer, they just don't need, or community colleges having not great completion rates, students are described as wanderers, or like you said, the enrollment is declining. And so that's part of the story. So let me tell you the other part of the story. So when we ask our students in our survey, for instance, our CCSSE survey or spring survey, we ask them a question, "Would you recommend this college to your friend or family member?" 94.6% of the responders said yes. I'm talking about over 164,000 students who said yes to this question. So yes, in the article, are there challenges? Absolutely. But are there also areas where momentum is building to help address some of those challenges? Yes. And so I think it would be great to include in the story about a national initiative that community colleges are really working towards.
0:14:48.6 DG: And according to AACC, I think nearly, or maybe we're about over 400 colleges now pursuing this national framework called Guided Pathways. Guided Pathways, it's designed to help colleges to improve rates of student completion, transfer, attainment of jobs with the value in the labor market. But Guided Pathways just doesn't happen overnight. It requires time, it requires change, just so many just interconnected systems that colleges spend several years planning for. So these efforts include redesigning programs of study, implementing new policy, systems, practices. So there's that other story that needs to be shared and celebrated too, because colleges are doing this work. So for instance, in the article, there was a college that was mentioned, Amarillo College, and it talked about the profile of a student, Maria. How do... We need to get to know Maria so we can help Maria get to the finish line. And I'm sure maybe the folks hearing today know that Aspen was one of two winners for the Aspen Prize. Now the Aspen Prize, it recognizes colleges that achieve high outcomes for students, equitable outcomes for students.
0:16:12.9 DG: I mean, there were one or two. The second was Imperial Valley College from California. So there are colleges that are building momentum and they are doing outstanding work to address some of those challenges. But this prize has been around since I think 2010, 2011. So there are other community colleges who have been recognized doing that work. So not to say that the stories that are mentioned are not valid because they are, but let's also talk about the colleges that are addressing some of those challenges and celebrate them as well.
0:16:51.0 TZ: And I know you mentioned Amarillo and I know one thing they really excel at is basic needs. It's something that they have prioritized along with many other institutions across the country. We know if students cannot... Have faced barriers caring for their children or transportation, it becomes impossible to be a student, right? And I know that you have a lot of expertise at CCSSE and have put out recent publications related to how our students are managing difficulty in meeting their basic needs. And I'd love to hear more about what you've learned in that area.
0:17:23.3 DG: Yeah, Tara, let me go back to what you were mentioning about Amarillo College. One thing I so appreciate from the president, Russell Lowery-Hart is loving students to success. Now, loving students to success and getting the Aspen Prize didn't happen overnight. It took years for it to develop, but he set the tone right in the beginning and things were changed, policies were redone. And so it does take time, but which leads me to the report that we published last year. It's called, "Mission Critical, The Role of Community Colleges in Meeting Students' Basic Needs". And we really looked deeper into these challenges on how it impacts students progress. Let me tell you just a couple of data points from what we learned. 9% of the responders, they classified as food insecure and 14 classified as housing insecure. So what does this mean and why should colleges devote resources to their work? We asked ourselves that question. And so what we know, when students struggle to meet basic needs, learning becomes more challenging and they are less likely to complete their education. So it's absolutely important that we help students because if we say we're looking at the student holistically, let's really look at the student holistically because when we're out in the field, students will often say, "The reason that I can't get to the finish line... "
0:18:50.0 DG: "Yes, I do have struggles or challenges in my coursework, but do you know that I'm struggling outside of my coursework? I have dependents to take care of, I have to work." I mean, there's so many things that they're juggling. "I don't have access to food." So they're trying to survive. But here is the headline, if I were to create a newspaper and put a headline on what the story was really about, the bottom line is that the data showed that students who experienced the most housing and food insecurity are the most engaged. And when I say the most engaged, Courtney mentioned earlier our benchmarks, and we looked at each benchmark. They were... They had higher benchmark scores than those who were less insecure with food and housing. So how much more could these students be more successful and we can remove some of those challenges or connect them to resources? And so when we're on the field, we ask community college leaders, "What is your role, what do you think your role or the college's role to help students?" And it's kind of on a spectrum. Some colleges are at the beginning of it and they're exploring it, where there's other colleges on the other side of the spectrum that are actually doing something about it.
0:20:01.5 DG: They bring resources on to their campus or they're already connecting. So colleges are in different phases of this because it goes back to Guided Pathways and this part of Guided Pathways. It takes time to put things into place. We also learned that students of color and low-income students are more likely to face insecurities and again, students with dependent children, and it just makes them harder to support their families and just improve the prospects for the future.
0:20:35.2 Intro: I know one thing that we're monitoring too, is when the students who face these basic needs barriers hit a speed bump and maybe they get derailed, what are the on-ramps for them to come back on to and having a recognition that a no for now or a stop for now doesn't necessarily mean to stop forever? And we obviously wanna keep that student enrolled if it's possible. It's just the one thing at EAB that we've been really thinking about is creating the on-ramp for that student to say, "You've taken a break for a semester, but here are some resources." Or using the exit survey to say, "We saw that you didn't register for spring. What barriers are you facing?" To really be able to kind of reconnect with that student, 'cause to your point, these are students that are engaged, these are students that wanna build a relationship with the institution, but we kinda have to reach back out and make sure that we do uphold our responsibility to that student.
0:21:30.1 DG: Yes. Absolutely, Tara. In fact, when we're doing this work, we would ask casual conversations during our interviews with students, we meet with some advisors, or we would ask, "What are you doing to help students with the information?" Because students will come in, start the community college, and there's so much information that's being thrown at them, and sometimes it's just hard to remember all that information. So advisors will say, "Well, we're creating a syllabus with all this information. We'll put the resources in there and we work with faculty." So it's attached to the course syllabus because we need to make the information inescapable. And it's also important to ask questions in...
0:22:09.8 DG: Students questions in the beginning if they're especially entry students or that first day of that class, "What are some of the challenges that will prevent you from being successful at this campus or at this college? What are current challenges that you're facing around?" Asking questions right up front, and that's for the students to verbalize out loud in a course, but maybe take that short survey in the course so the instructor knows, "Okay, the student is facing X, Y, and Z. I'm gonna connect the student right away to these resources and make sure that the information is presented to them right away." Because as you say, if students drop out, they'll come back, but more than likely, they may not because it's harder to get them back.
0:22:53.5 TZ: I agree. And obviously, basic needs barriers are really impacting enrollment. But one other area that we're keeping an eye on where many colleges are actually seeing growth is dual enrollment, and I know that you've done a bit of research here and have some upcoming work in this area. We'd just love to hear a little bit more about how our interactions with dual enrolled students might shape their future.
0:23:22.5 DA: Yeah, Tara. Happy to answer that question or talk about dual enrollment for a few minutes. What you said is absolutely true. I recently read that one in five community college students is a high schooler, right? And in a state like Texas where Linda and I are sitting, it's one in four. So 25% of the community college students in the State of Texas are dually enrolled high school students. So it's definitely a population that is exploding right now, and has been for the last couple of years, and is driving enrolments up in the community college sector for sure. And research on dual enrollment has existed for quite some time, but it's mostly been kind of focused around policy, legislation, final outcomes for students who are dually enrolled, but what there really hasn't been research on is what do students experience when they are dually enrolled? What does the student experience look like?
0:24:22.6 DA: And so we've really been interested in investigating that for a few years now, and through generous funding from the Gates Foundation, we were able to pilot a survey, Linda mentioned it earlier, the Dual Enrollment Survey of Student Engagement, and we piloted it this past fall with 17 colleges across 11 states and we had over 4,000 dually-enrolled respondents or dual enrolled respondents, and we learned some interesting things. So we learned that 95% of the respondents, they were motivated to do what it takes to succeed, and so that was great news to hear. We also learned that they were really engaged in the classroom and in their coursework. I talked earlier about that active and collaborative learning benchmark. Really high scores on all of those items kind of at the aggregate level.
0:25:13.6 DA: And so these things are great. The motivation piece is great, the engagement in the classroom and the coursework is great because these are the things that help students succeed. We know that from 20 years of this work. We also learned that 45% of the respondents said one of the reasons they were taking dual enrollment coursework was because they wanted to earn credit toward a future bachelor's degree. And so we also included some items on the survey about advising, transfer advising, how often they had sort those things out, if they knew about those things. And what we learned in that area is that about half of the students had seen an advisor at the college, about half hadn't. The large majority of students were receiving advice about what courses to take through the college from somebody at the high school, not somebody at the college.
0:26:08.1 DA: And that makes some sort of sense because they're situated at the high school and they're interacting with their high school counselors, but that could be a missed opportunity there. I know one of the things in the article that we were talking about earlier that was mentioned is that students are taking classes that they don't need eventually. And it's taking time and it's taking money away from credit that won't count, and that's certainly something we don't want to happen. So I think that advising piece is really important. We ask the students if they knew about transfer advising, and about half of them said they were aware of that service, but of the ones who are aware, over 80% had not used it. So I think this is just sort of a missed opportunity for the colleges to really connect with students and to talk to them and say, "Hey, what is your plan? How can we help ensure that you're on the right path to achieving that ultimate goal that you want to achieve? What do you know and what don't you know, may be more important, and what can we help you with?" Dual enrollment is such a fantastic opportunity for students. It allows them to get college credit while they're still in high school. It can be a big cost-saver for them, save them a lot of money. It provides the social and academic advancement opportunities really early.
0:27:34.8 DA: And so there were all these positives. And I think if the colleges could connect with the students in some of those ways that I was just talking about, then the outcomes of the dual enrolment students could be increased even more. And I think the colleges could really begin to foster relationships with those students that may maintain some enrollment at the colleges where the students are taking their dual enrollment coursework. So I think so many of the programs are fantastic. We've been talking to the colleges or participating in the pilot. They're working really hard on it, but there's some more growth that can happen there.
0:28:16.5 TZ: I'm almost hearing you say, kind of extend that Guided Pathways mindset into the dual enrollment kind of scenario to provide that student that hands-on intrusive, structured, guard rails type of advising experience. So I know we talked a lot today, and what I wanted to end on, it was really two questions wrapped into one, which is, I'd love to give you all the opportunity to share if there were any publications or research briefs that you have coming out that the public should be kind of aware of, and also, if you had one or two pieces of advice for community college leaders, what would you leave them with?
0:29:00.3 DG: Yeah. Well, I'll go first, Tara, and thank you for the opportunity to tell you and to tell the listeners about some publications that we're working on. We actually have a publication coming out at the end of the month, so just in a couple of weeks, and it's about the impact of course modality on student engagement. And so what we're looking at in this study and what we'll speak about in the report is what are the differences in engagement between students who take all of their classes online and students who take at least one class in person?
0:29:32.5 DG: And I don't wanna give anything away before we publish it, but there are some interesting differences, so I would encourage people to be on the look out for that. And as far as one piece of advice that I would give to college leaders, it's just the importance of incorporating the student voice into planning. We released a report last year called "Listen to me", and what that report focused on was a series of launch to more focus groups that we did where we interviewed the same group of students... Groups of students at three colleges four times, three times in the fall semester, once in the spring semester. And we were really trying to get at what are the triggers that might lead to their attrition, but also what would help them stay. And we didn't collect any quantitative data. We just talked to them in focus groups. And what we learned is that stepping onto a college campus for the first time can be terrifying and confusing, especially for first generation students. We also learned that when students do participate in student success courses, tutoring, things like that, they really value them and understand how helpful that is, but we also learned that students... Not all students know about those things. And then just finally, I would say in the last focus group that we did, we said, "Where is your confidence level now? Do you feel as confident as when we first talked to you?" And many of them said, no.
0:31:08.6 DG: But then we said, "But you're still here, right? You haven't dropped out four interviews later, so what's helped you stay?" And they all kind of said the same things, and they said things like engaging instructors, relationships with other students and with people at the college, and they almost all said, knowing what I'm supposed to do next semester, kind of having a plan and knowing how to get there. And so just in short, what I would say is students know what helps them, and they know what helps them persist. I think we just need to ask them.
0:31:44.2 TZ: I think that's such a good point about asking them not only what the blocker is, but what we will you stay is a really, I think, positive spin on some of those questions as well into your point, students know what they need and they will tell you when asked.
0:32:00.7 DG: In addition too, I would add, there are other publications that we're thinking for the future. So for instance, later this year in the fall, we will be publishing on transfer. We ask students questions such as they decide on a program, major pathway of study, or if someone talked to them about the application process for transferring, or did a staff member at the course talk to them about which credits will transfer? So there'll be a story about transfer in the fall. In the spring of 2024, we are looking at talking about career readiness. We had a module, when I say model, we have several items that we ask students and we ask some questions such as, "How much has your coursework at this course provided information about the skills you need in your chosen career path? Or how much has your experience at the college contributed to your knowledge about which jobs are the most in demand in your local labor market?" So items such as that. So that story will be told in spring 2024. Then our fall 2024, our huge national report will be about mental health and well-being, and then we will be also looking into exploring deeper about men of color, students of color, on how their academic success maybe is impacted through many areas. We told the story about 10, 12 years ago, and now we wanna revisit this. Has the needle moved? Are there success rates strengthening? And we wanna do some focus group work, so stay tuned about that.
0:33:42.9 DG: And then to your second question, in addition to what Courtney said about what advice can we give institutional leaders. And I love how she talked about incorporating student voice because that is absolutely a priority. In addition to that, there is a need to really look at the data and desegregate them to ensuring students are having equitable experiences. Which student populations are in need of more support? And then also just sharing the data with all faculty and staff, because if we're moving toward this national conversation on Guided Pathways, for instance, to change the culture, we have to make sure everyone's informed and we have to build the case with everybody. So data help with that. It shows the need for improvement, it also shares areas where colleges can celebrate. And that's just so important to make sure that everybody is aware, or they know the data, that it's transparent, and that it's shared with them.
0:34:46.3 TZ: So it sounds like you'll be busy, is what I'm hearing you say.
0:34:50.5 DG: Yes, like I said, Courtney is our storyteller, so I'm so excited for her to tell these stories in the future for CCSSE.
0:34:57.8 TZ: Well, I know as someone that does research in this field, I am very much so looking forward to these stories, I'm looking forward to the upcoming publications. And I wanted to thank you both today, Linda and Courtney, for taking the time to talk with us at EAB. And again, we're speaking to the Center for Community College Student Engagement. You can visit their website and check out the publications that they mentioned. So thank you both again for being so gracious with your time.
0:35:22.0 DA: Thank you...
0:35:23.6 DG: Thank you, Tara.
0:35:25.4 Outro: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore what colleges are doing to meet the needs of students who also happen to be caring for their own young children. Until then, thank you for your time.
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