Reaction was sharply divided over my column two months ago on Northern Virginia Community College student Sonja Anderson’s struggle to find good advisers and professors. Community college students and former students thought it was accurate. Their professors thought the opposite.
“The problems of one student,” said Charles Errico, a professor and assistant dean at the huge two-year school known as NOVA, “do not represent those of the more than 75,000” who attend the school.
Sadly, he offered no data to illustrate that. The same can be said of the other faculty who defended their institutions. It is hard to get a grip on community colleges (and four-year colleges as well) because they rarely reveal the details of what they are doing about important issues such as shortages of academic advisers. They also resist independent attempts to assess how much their students are learning.
Fortunately, the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin has been examining what is happening inside the two-year schools that educate more than 40 percent of the nation’s undergraduates. Its new 2016 national report is not encouraging.
The report cites research showing that “when an advisor helps a student develop an academic plan, that student is more likely to succeed.” Its survey of more than 63,000 community college students found that just 44 percent agreed with the statement “an advisor helped me set academic goals and create a plan for achieving them.”
Anderson told me that the advisers she encountered at NOVA were “ignorant of key graduation requirements.” For her first two years, she was not assigned an adviser, and she eventually had to find one herself.
The center’s research shows NOVA is not the only campus having trouble getting a substantial number of its students prepared for work or four-year colleges. Most community colleges are short of funds, and they often get little attention — particularly from education writers like me.
Yet they are very important. Both of my parents attended community college. My brother worked at one for most of his career. Families and high school teachers trying to get struggling students into college know that the two-year schools are often their only hope. But the center’s 2016 report reveals a troubling level of self-deception among students who reach community colleges. I suspect that is in part a result of their getting so little useful advice from college staff.
Sixty-one percent of students said they could attain their academic goals within two years. Seventy-six percent said they were on track to reach those goals. Yet just 39 percent of community college students get a certificate, an associate’s degree or a four-year college bachelor’s degree within six years.
The detachment from reality begins before students start their first classes, the center reported. Sixty-six percent said they were informed more than a month in advance that because of their poor academic records they had to take placement tests to get into credit courses in math and English at their community college. But 59 percent said they did nothing to prepare for those exams.
NOVA President Scott Ralls sent me a sensible statement saying he knows that the college has work to do. NOVA spokeswoman Kathy Thompson said the school’s Quality Enhancement Plan is striving “to retain students by establishing relationships, fostering connections with advisors and faculty, and teaching students how to plan and evaluate their academic performance.”
It would help everyone if NOVA and other colleges had some numbers to buttress such hopeful statements. What percentage of new students saw an adviser last year and for how long? How many advisers do the colleges have compared with 10 years ago? How many will be hired in the future?
In fall 2015, Thompson told me, 33 percent of students involved in initiatives to improve student success “received formalized advising.” I’m happy that NOVA is gathering such data. But it and the rest of the nation’s community colleges need to do much better than that.