Measuring Institutional Conditions that Support Student Success in the California Community Colleges

May 2012

Elements of a Framework to Report Institutional Conditions for Success

Community colleges are an essential component of the American higher education system. Some students enroll for job training or retraining, whether for individual courses or for certificates or career-oriented associate degrees. Others seek two-year degrees in liberal arts fields for the purposes of career entry or advancement. Still others may enroll with the intention of transferring to four-year institutions to earn bachelor’s degrees. Open access policies and lower fees make these institutions especially important to students who, for a variety of reasons, may not have the academic preparation or economic resources to enter four-year colleges directly out of high school. They are a vital entry point for many first generation college students, who typically come from lower-income backgrounds, who are often students of color, and whose education is vital to the future of the country. For all of these reasons, we must attend to the success of community college students if we are to ensure equitable access to postsecondary education.

Scholars have identified numerous interrelated factors associated with success and failure among students in community colleges. These factors can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Student characteristics, including academic preparation, financial resources, cultural familiarity with college, degree of commitment to achieving educational goals, and personal challenges such as family responsibilities;
  2. Student behaviors once they enroll, including study habits and attendance, engagement in the academic environment, level of effort, and utilization of academic and personal support services; and
  3. Institutional conditions that may help or impede students’ progress, including matriculation processes, pedagogy, curricula, schedules, academic and student support services, organizational culture, and the physical environment.

Some of the student characteristics and behaviors may present greater obstacles to individuals who grew up in poverty and/or attended under-resourced K–12 schools; others may be equally challenging to all students, regardless of background. What the students arguably share, however, is their ability to access the resources offered by their institutions. Indeed, individual colleges have the most direct control over their own institutional conditions, and these conditions can be leveraged to affect students’ personal circumstances and behaviors. For example, a college can develop close working relationships with feeder high schools to align secondary and postsecondary curricula and to inform high school students of what they need to do to become ready for college. This is especially important for students whose parents have not attended college themselves, since they are more likely to rely on others to guide them in the college preparation and choice process. Likewise, colleges can offer programs to address students’ financial difficulties (e.g., book lending programs, installment payment options) and family obligations (e.g., child care services). And, they can encourage success by setting clear expectations and implementing campus policies that guide student behavior. With this interaction between institution and individual in mind, it is clear that we need a better understanding of what is happening on community college campuses with respect to support for students.

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