By Darren Johnson
I’d been wanting to write this piece for a while. Aside from publishing Campus News, I have also worked in community colleges for a long time now, in various capacities, and remain concerned that not enough students are what administrators call “persisting.”
In short, it mostly means lasting past the first year, or even the first semester.
I’ve worked upstate and downstate in New York, and there are some variations on this problem. In some community colleges in poorer regions, for example, a lot of students leave after receiving their financial aid check, around Thanksgiving time in the fall. I have taught in one of these locations and it is disconcerting to lose a third of my students for no good reason. I assume it’s because they had never had a lump sum of money before like that and get caught up in the euphoria of it. When I was a college student, I once won $1000 via a slot machine and thought it was the best thing in the world! It beat the $7/hour I was earning at the local fast-food joint. However, in the case of my classes, these students were passing and would have likely passed the course if they did not stop attending. They just aren’t getting good advice in their personal lives. Lump sums come and go, but a 0.0 may stay with you forever.
The other term the administrators use in regards to community college student success is “completion.”
That usually means graduation in a reasonable amount of time, but the numbers are alarming.
The problem may be mindset. Students are not generally advised to take 15-18 credits a semester, and thus the potential to get a two-year degree in two years lessens. The longer one takes to get the right number of credits, the greater the chance that life can get in the way – especially for commuter students, who have family and other relationships nearby.
A lot of financial aid is tied to graduating on time, but I’ve found many students are talked into the minimum 12 credits, to their detriment. At the aforementioned college, the typical full-time student took less than 13 credits each semester.
So students run out of time and money and don’t “complete.”
Here’s what you should do: Sign up for 15-18 credits. It costs the same in New York State whether one signs up for 12 or 18.
If you find you are actually failing a course, with no real hope of passing, then you can drop it (usually sometime in November is the final withdrawal date for a course; check your academic calendar via your campus web site) and still pull in 12-15 credits.
But talk to your professor first — you may think you are failing but, in his mind, you still have a shot of passing. Take the gamble. Often, it is better to fail and try than to drop a course. As a grader, I often give extra points for persistence.
And don’t be afraid of C’s. A C simply means you passed the course in average fashion. You can’t be great at everything. As an undergrad I got a lot of C’s — sometimes worse! — and here I am doing this thing!
Ultimately, I believe a lot of whether you succeed or not depends on you. That’s part of the reason why we publish this paper — we pepper each issue with useful advice to help you along (we also try to entertain; else no one would pick this up!).
I’ve met so many under-confident students over the years. Here are some examples:
—The fragile-ego student who isn’t getting all A’s who suddenly doesn’t feel “college is for me.” My advice: Buck up! You’re doing better than most, and, who gets a 4.0?
—The student who didn’t do well in high school, and most of his friends at home are telling him he can do well enough without college. You don’t need college to work a trade, they say. And often trades pay better than jobs that require degrees. True, but it can’t hurt to have that degree in your back pocket. Eventually, you may want to move into management or the like. You may not see it now, but at, say, 35 or so, you will.
—Which brings us to the 30-40+ students. Every class has one or two of them. As I have gotten older myself as an instructor, I often relate to them on a more personal level and strike up conversations with them outside of class to make them feel more at ease. They often have the least confidence in the class; many tried college at 18, didn’t succeed, and now, here they are, back in a classes with a bunch of students who could, symbolically, be their kids. It is unnerving. If you are one of these students, do realize that it’s not too late. Also, your maturity probably makes you a stronger writer than the younger students in the class, so use that to your advantage. Once the panic is over, these students have often been my best students (I teach writing-related courses). If you are a younger student and see an older student, be kind to him or her.
Lifespans are tricky, so starting college 10 or 20 years after the traditional age student may not, longterm, be that bad of an idea. And, over time, if you are, say, 40 and entering a white collar job market, the recruiter doesn’t care if you had gotten that degree 20 year ago or yesterday. A degree is yours forever once granted. Go for it!
—Finally, there is the student who suddenly feels that college is too hard and is overwhelmed. They aren’t used to getting papers back covered in red ink (your high school teacher was too easy), answering questions properly when called on in class and all of the reading.
But you are using new muscles. It will take time to get your academic stamina going. Don’t give up.
The red ink is nothing personal. Instructors do that to everyone. OK, you may not be very articulate yet — I was barely a step up from a caveman my freshman year in college as far as speaking ability. That improves dramatically over your college years. Don’t sweat it.
As for the reading, it’s OK to be a slow reader. I tend to have two speeds. I can read quickly if it’s not a work of creative writing, but for such works I tend to read each sentence twice just to absorb it. We all do that.
But don’t be afraid to ask for help in your campus learning labs. They are non-judgmental and eager to make a difference. Let them do their work and help you.
In short, you can do this. I personally know you can because I have encountered practically every type of student, and all have the ability. The fact that you’ve read this article to the end is a very promising sign!