Why being a new student can feel like playing 'Chutes and Ladders'

Streamlining the onboarding process a primary goal for community colleges

If community colleges continue at their current rate of progress, they will be about 90% of the way to reaching their goal of graduating 50% more skilled students by 2020, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) officials remained generally optimistic about meeting the goal—set by six national two-year college organizations in 2010—at the association's annual conference, which drew about 2,000 attendees.

However, major challenges still remain.

Addressing summer melt

About 35% of potential community college students drop out from the time they submit applications to their first class. That is because the process of applying, understanding financial aid, taking placement exams, and registering for classes is not as simple and linear as many administrators perceive it to be, according to researchers from EAB.

"It's more like a game of Chutes and Ladders," says Sarah Zauner, an EAB practice manager, comparing finding on-campus child care to going up a ladder and missing a class registration deadline as falling down a chute.

How orientation is like Chutes and Ladders

On Monday, Zauner led a presentation on these issues, explaining how EAB sent 20 "secret shoppers" pretending to be prospective students to two-year campuses across the country. The shoppers represented a range of student personas—from a 30-year-old with terrible math scores who wanted to be a nurse to an 18-year-old with no plan. Researchers also interviewed hundreds of current students.

They found that in addition to confusion over processes:

  • "Administrator-speak," or academic jargon such as "FAFSA," "bursar," and "MWF" (representing classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), confused students.
  • Various offices gave conflicting advice.
  • Students were not aware that quickly reviewing material before taking a placement exam could keep them out of a semester of remedial courses.

Reliance on part-time faculty members also remains a challenge in meeting completion goals.

Developing exciting programs

Many community college programs prepare students for a solid career, but hooking their interest remains difficult.

"You talk to a 15-year-old about becoming a plumber, which is a valued profession that pays well, and he'll look at you like you have horns growing out of your head," says Andrew Jones, former chancellor at California's Coast Community College District. "But anything involving robots is sexy and exciting," he adds.

Jones promoted the Base 11 project, a focus on "high-potential, low-resource" entrepreneurial opportunities for students in STEM-Health fields.

One such focus of Base 11 is preparing students to fly, maintain, program, and repair unmanned aircrafts. By 2020, Base 11 says the nation will need approximately 500,000 drone operators, who could earn up to $125,000 each.

Closing an ever-expanding skills gap

Employers continue to tell community college leaders there are too few graduates who have necessary technical skills, despite schools' upgrades to programs that tailor them to local needs.

By the time a job-skills gap program goes through the approval process, it is already outdated, say some community college officials.

The Chronicle reports that some officials noted privately that as their schools try to fill the gap, companies cut their own training programs and are relying on the colleges to remain current on the technical training required across a range of industries.

"In some cases, industries are using the so-called skills gap to justify keeping wages low," one unidentified official told The Chronicle.

That may be true in some cases, says Jones, but he says he believes that overall the skills gap is legitimate. That is why he says he wants to promote programs that foster creative thinking and prepare students to "manipulate technology before it's invented," (Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/20).

The takeaway: Community colleges are working their way toward higher retention and completion, but some roadblocks remain.

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