The Community College Blog

Big ideas for improvement—from surprising places

by Melinda Salaman

Best practices, small towns, and big ideas

My colleagues and I at EAB now serve over 1,100 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. Our community college members represent just over 10% of that number, an impressive network that grows each day. As you’d imagine, our membership is incredibly diverse—colleges from all across the country, serving varied student populations of different sizes in rural, suburban, and urban localities—but also extremely aligned in their dedication to student success.

It’s easy to brag about a membership that includes Aspen Prize winners, Achieving the Dream leaders, and institutions with many other accolades lining their hallways. But the vast majority of community colleges rarely see the spotlight—and that’s a shame.

Despite having great strategies, big results, and plenty of lessons to share, small, rural, or unknown colleges struggle to break into the national scene. As a result, the same institutions are featured at different industry events; today information trickles down from the conference stage to audience members, rather than cross-pollinating among industry colleagues.

More cows than people, but plenty to share

At the beginning of each of our national meetings, we typically ask attendees to introduce themselves by sharing their name, institution, and top priority for the year. Recently, one member described his service area as having “more cows than people,” an apt description of the rural location and context for some of the enrollment challenges the college faced.

The college has fewer than 2,000 students enrolled and a high-touch advising model that leaders of larger institutions might scoff at: from the point of admission, each student receives an enrollment advisor and a faculty mentor to provide expert support resources as new students navigate campus for the first time.

Since the typical community college averages about five times the student body of this institution, it may be difficult to see how any other institution could learn from this small college. But in fact, there are strong lessons to draw:

  • New students need help to navigate enrollment. More often than not, administrative processes are too complex for new entrants to figure out on their own.
  • Advice is best delivered from a trusted resource (or two). Even with the proliferation of hallway signage and photocopied documents, students still want personalized advice to ensure they are not making mistakes during onboarding.
  • Consistency is key. To make an early advising model like this work, college leaders had to ensure that all staff and advisors were providing students with consistent enrollment information; their system of communicating policies and updates to all student-facing staff is truly best-in-class across the industry.

More lessons in student success: How one city's weight-loss plan can inform student success initiatives

Our membership is filled with institutions that have similarly useful insights and practices to share:

  • Broward College regularly leans on our research to identify innovative and actionable ideas to guide strategic planning
  • Tulsa Community College has identified several barriers to delivering high-quality advising to new students
  • Nashua Community College increased fall-to-spring persistence for historically at-risk students on campus by four percentage points

These colleges couldn’t be more different from one another, yet they offer similarly inspiring models to engage the whole institution in student success.

The best practices are the ones that work for you

At the end of the day, every institution is different. Some colleges may choose to fully adopt a high-touch advising model, while others might apply the principles of such a model into a scalable student success platform like Navigate. Best practices are not one-size-fits-all—you need contextual knowledge and customization to make a a new program, process, or big idea work on your campus.

For example, one of our member colleges reported losing an average of 42% of applicants before the first day of class. While there might be several reasons for this early attrition, during an on-campus research visit, EAB change management consultants found that a delay between acceptance and delivery of a college ID number prevented students from moving forward with enrollment. As a solution, we offered a best practice from Laredo Community College: Issue immediate ID numbers to accepted students.

How providing student IDs early could prevent attrition at your college

Executives at the college did not simply cut and paste Laredo’s practice—the two schools are on opposite sides of the country, and serve different students populations in vastly different settings. However, college leaders used the practice as a model for their campus strategy.

Three weeks later, the college issued immediate ID numbers to accepted students through their admissions emails. Contacts at the college told us that after implementing this practice with a fraction of their total applicants for the term, they measured an initial 1.3% increase in new student enrollments and cost-savings from ceasing to print and mail ID numbers through the postal service.

No shortage of good ideas

Whether you’ve basked in the national spotlight before or are more often sitting in the conference ballroom seats, your institution can offer lessons learned to others across the country. Particularly as the two-year sector faces such challenging times ahead, it’s critical that every college innovates with the intention to enroll, retain, and graduate more students.

Mission dictates that the work doesn’t just stop at innovation. College leaders should be spreading the good word, teaching other institutions, and learning best practices from colleagues in the hopes of improving student success nationwide. Colleges are better for it, students are better for it, and as an additional incentive, your institution might just be called into the national spotlight.


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