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It’s the first day of classes and you’re walking around campus trying to find the right building. Takes you a few minutes, alright maybe more than few, and but alas you enter the right classroom. Class looks pretty packed, maybe about 30-35 students with one chair left for you to sit in. As the weeks go by and the calendar pages disappear, so do the students. You can’t help but notice how the class seems to be shrinking. Ever wonder where everyone went? Did everyone drop the class? Is the professor that bad?
This actually occurs at many community colleges, private universities and basically, colleges in general across the country. This disappearing act that students pull is becoming an unwelcomed trend. A New York Times piece ran this past September by David Leonhardt and delved into the issue asserting that, “Yet in terms of [universities’] core missions — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.” The United States does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enroll end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse (Leonhardt 2009). But why is the system failing? Is it the kids or the college?
Putting aside the most obvious reason, money, researchers have discovered that 40% of college students will leave higher education without getting a degree, with 75% percent of these students leaving within their first two years of college (www.stateuniversity.com). Colleges are failing to provide the environment that students transitioning from high school are looking for. It is then most critical for first year students to feel supported individually as well as feel connected to the campus community. If students are isolated or feel as if they don’t fit in, they won’t stay. It’s important for colleges to offer programs and services that integrate first-year students into the social community at the start of their experience.
According to their website, one such program runs at Hofstra University on Long Island, in which first year students are put into, “seminars, clusters and block courses designed to get your college experience off to a great start… limited to 15 students, first-year seminars allow you to interact in a smaller setting and connect with a faculty member who may become your major adviser, depending on what major you choose.” These first year seminars involve being with the same group of students, professors and even attending events and lunch together. It is the university’s attempt to create an environment “supportive and conducive to building lasting friendships and academic excellence.”
Do community colleges need to learn from private university programs, such as the aforementioned? Even if a college has this supportive environment, is that enough? Researchers suggest that the lack of direction some students have, as to career choices, leads to higher dropout rates. Andrea Salzburg, advisor to the “The Success Coaching Program” at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, explains that the university developed this program to “increase the retention and degree completion rates of first-year students at HCC because literature shows that students who declare a major are more likely to achieve academic success.” The program involves students taking part in various career readiness programs and those who are undeclared are able to receive ideas on potential careers that match their skills and interests and leads them toward selecting a major by the end of the semester. As of fall 2008, Ms. Salzburg explained, “students who were exposed to Success Coaching demonstrated a higher retention and persistence rate in consecutive semesters than students who were not exposed to Success Coaching. If we can help steer students towards selecting a major, they are more likely to stay enrolled.”
Research and specialists can only help so much, asking students is what counts. After interviewing students at Nassau Community College, located in Garden City, NY, an interesting insight into students’ views of what a community college is entered the mix. As student Lauren Caldera, 21, explained, “I have noticed the trend of people not showing up to classes, but then they usually show up after a month before the class ends or just skip class every other week. Of course, people care less about a community college versus a private college. One: they are paying less and two; they think it’s not as strict as a private school. It even goes for some professors too!”
Also expressing a similar sentiment, Matt Zappia, 21, stated, “I have seen students attend class for a week, never to be seen until the day of the final or ever again. At Nassau Community College, students often refer to their freshman year as the ‘13th grade.’ With no housing options and attending school close to home, and returning home at the end of the day, it is similar to that of high school, so old habits may remain.”
Is the drop-out rate at community colleges simply a reflection on how the education one receives there is less serious or in some way lacks as good of quality as a private institution? In this case, no matter what research has shown, there needs to be a shift in the mentality of what the student population believes a community college is. Community Colleges across the country offer hundreds of programs in which highly qualified and competent professors teach. Incoming students need to be informed of all the educational opportunities community colleges offer so the stigma and stereotype of what a “community college” is can change.