Sense of Direction: The Importance of Helping Community College Students Select and Enter a Program of Study

August 2011

The California Community Colleges (CCC) are committed to increasing the rate at which entering students persist to completion of a certificate or degree or transfer to a university. Recent research suggests that efforts to increase student success in community colleges need to focus on helping new students choose and enter a program of study. Too many students accumulate credits in disparate areas that don’t add up to a coherent academic program.

Entering a program of study also helps students connect to the college in ways that promote completion. This report examines the progress of an entering cohort of CCC students into and through programs of study to completion of a certificate, associate degree, or transfer to a university.

The results point to three main conclusions:

1. Entering a program of study (defined as completing 9 college-level credits in one programmatic area) is a critical milestone on the path to completing a college certificate or degree that only half of all entering CCC students reach.

 60% of incoming CCC students attempted to enter a program (by enrolling in the requisite credits) and 49% succeeded in entering a program (by completing the credits)

 Black and Latino students were less successful than white and Asian students at entering a program, while older students were less likely than younger students to try

 A substantial number of students likely intended to pursue a college credential but dropped out before making enough progress to enter a program

 Patterns of program entry and completion varied within and across CTE and liberal arts programs

 The number of students in just one entering cohort who attempted to enter a program but failed to do so exceeded 50,000, suggesting that there is a significant number of students, from multiple entering cohorts, enrolled in the CCC at any one time who are interested in but having difficulty reaching this important milestone

2. The earlier students enter a program, the more likely they are to complete a certificate, degree or transfer.

 Students who entered a program in the first year were twice as likely to complete a certificate, degree or transfer as students who entered a program after the first year; first-year program entrants were 50% more likely to complete than those who entered a program in the second year, and the rates of completion fell sharply for students entering a program later than the second year

3. Analyzing students’ course-taking patterns provides reliable information for determining their intended
programs, but better data are needed for effective student guidance and program review.

 Most of the credentials earned were in the program a student “entered” based on the courses taken

 Having accurate data on students’ declared majors would allow colleges to better serve students and strengthen academic programs

The CCC’s efforts to increase completion will be more successful if the access mission of the colleges is re-conceived as providing access to well-structured programs rather than to a collection of courses that may not add up to a coherent program of study. Specific steps the colleges could take to increase the numbers of students who successfully enter programs of study in their first year include:

 Help incoming students learn about and choose programs of study through orientation or a required first-term course that covers program options as well as more general college success skills

 Ensure that certificate and degree programs are well structured and provide roadmaps of required or strongly recommended course sequences for each program of study so that students know what courses they should take in their first year of pursuing a program

 Develop class schedules to ensure availability of courses based on students’ declared programs

 Ensure that certificate and degree programs are well structured for part-time students, given that they make up a substantial majority of entering students (even as efforts are made to increase the proportion of students who attend full-time)

 Provide better professional development opportunities for academic advising staff, to ensure they can provide guidance for students on the full range of program options at the colleges

 Accelerate reforms to basic skills instruction with special attention to contextualized instruction that integrates developmental math and English skills into content courses

 Require students to declare a major program of study after a certain amount of time or accumulation of credits, and assign students faculty advisors in their declared major programs

 Improve coordination between high school and community college programs to ensure that all articulated courses offered in the high schools are part of structured certificate or degree programs and to provide high school students more opportunities to learn about college program offerings

 Keep up-to-date records of each student’s major program of study so that students can be appropriately advised as to the courses they need.

Helping students choose, enter (especially within their first year of enrollment) and complete well-defined and structured programs will go far toward increasing the number of students earning college credentials of value and providing California with a well-educated workforce and citizenry.

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