At D.C.-area community colleges, coaches help students stay on track

President Barack Obama says community colleges are essential to help build the nation's economic base. His message comes as a new poll finds some students should attend these institutions instead of four-year schools. (Oct. 5)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 8:05 PM

Jonathan Tucker sits down for an hour each week with Rick Leith, a professor at his community college, to talk about whatever is on his mind.

It doesn't sound particularly revolutionary. But leaders of Howard Community College have found that students who meet regularly with volunteer "coaches" are significantly more likely to continue their studies than classmates who do not.

In a sector of higher education known for yielding more dropouts than graduates, any program proven to keep students in school is likely to get a closer look. President Obama this fall kicked off a national search for solutions to the retention problem at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. Under the American Graduation Initiative, the administration is chasing a goal of 5 million new community college graduates by 2020.

National data suggest that barely one-fifth of students who enroll in community colleges complete their studies more or less on time. Community college students are more likely than their four-year peers to juggle full-time jobs or parenthood along with their course loads, and to face poverty or other life circumstances that can hinder a college education.

Howard Community College is among the Washington region's more successful two-year institutions. The school, which is in a wealthy suburban county, reports that 57 percent of students either graduate or transfer to four-year colleges within four years of enrolling.

One reason is Step UP, a program of coaching and support launched five years ago at the Columbia campus.

A committee of faculty and staff was looking to improve retention - the share of students who return from one semester or year to the next. The group interviewed students who had failed and asked what might have helped them succeed.

The response was unexpected. Students said they had let their schoolwork go because "they weren't convinced that it mattered," said Sue Frankel, an English professor who directs the coaching program.

High school students have parents, teachers and counselors prodding them forward. College students often are largely left to fend for themselves.

Yet community college students face myriad conflicts and distractions. Helen Heffer, an adjunct philosophy instructor and coach, made a page-long list of the complications facing the 17 students in one of her classes.

"Every semester, I am struck by the immensity of life for the students here," she said.

Tucker, 33, started at a four-year college, dropped out, spent time in the military, worked at a heating and air-conditioning company, then was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His mother died shortly before he entered Howard Community College last year. He works 25 hours a week to support his wife and three children.

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