An emerging strategy to promote community college success is to have students enroll in “student success courses” that focus on study and career skills and help guide them through their community college experience.
Encouraging more students to take these courses, as part of a range of “student support services,” is a principal recommendation of the California Community College’s Student Success Task Force.
The Task Force was mandated by 2010 legislation to examine how to improve student success in community colleges. In its draft report, it tersely noted that “a student’s readiness for college is based on several factors in addition to their academic proficiency in English and mathematics or their ability to perform well on standard assessment tests.”
The Task Force, whose recommendations will be considered by the California Community College’s Board of Governors next month, pointed out that students’ “college knowledge,” or awareness and understanding of “college culture” and support services, can help them navigate the complexities of life on campus and access services such as tutoring labs and financial aid that may be critical to their success.
The report said the student success courses the Task Force had in mind would most likely be provided in a noncredit format in order to avoid issues related to cost or financial aid. But it left it up in the air as to whether they should be required for students who demonstrate they need help after taking an assessment test to measure their skill levels.
If required, it is not clear how the community colleges would pay the costs of adding multiple new course sections to serve larger numbers of students. Some community college leaders also worry that making a student success course a requirement could have the unintended impact of erecting yet another obstacle that students have to traverse in order to reach their educational goals.
Typically, a student success course has been offered in conjunction with other support services, such as establishing “learning communities” in which a group of students enroll in the same courses and form a support group to help each other and together make use of other services offered by their college, such as extra tutoring.
Like many of the Task Force’s recommendations, the idea of a student success course is not a new one but builds on what is already in place in more limited form in some colleges. Courses intended to impart useful information to help students succeed are offered at community colleges like City College of San Francisco, College of Alameda, Skyline College in San Bruno, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, and the Cosumnes River College near Sacramento.
For at least 25 years, student success courses were offered at City College of San Francisco as a one-unit, not-for-credit course, said Nadine Rosenthal, the director of City College’s Learning Assistance Center.
It has since expanded to a three-unit course taken by some 800 students that can be used for transfer to a UC or CSU campus. It consists of three segments: one focused on personal growth and learning styles; another on study strategies and test-taking skills, and another on critical and creative thinking. An average of 40 students are enrolled in 22 course sections.
Rosenthal said surveys showed that students found the “time management” and “goal setting” portions of the class most valuable, followed by techniques for memorizing and concentrating on course materials.
But she opposed making it a required course for students who are shown to be lagging on a placement test. She said it would be “logistically challenging” as well as extremely costly to offer as many as 100 course sections without a major increase in staffing — an unlikely prospect during this period of extreme cuts to the community colleges’ budget.
Regina Stanback Stroud, the president of Skyline College, said she worried that making “student success” courses mandatory for some students may have the unintended impact of slowing students’ progress toward transferring to CSU or UC.
She also expressed concerns that students in career technical programs, such as automotive technology, would be required to take the student success course even though they wouldn’t need to learn study and other skills more appropriate for academic classes.
The push to expand student success courses, said Bob Gabriner, a task force member and director of the Education Leadership Program at San Francisco State, is in part a response to the difficulties in providing students with regular access to college counselors, whose ranks have been drastically diminished as a result of budget cuts, even as enrollments have increased.
“As you cut back on counseling resources and student services resources, you have to figure out how to deliver those services and that information in a more efficient way,” Gabriner said. Providing information during a 16-week semester course may be more effective than a one-time session with a counselor, he said, because instructors can reach far more students and can respond to students’ needs as they arise.
“Having a scaffolding over an entire semester turns out to be a better way” to impart information such as how to get library privileges and other practical aspects of campus life, Gabriner said.
A MDRC report looked at the impact of programs that integrated instruction with student support services at nine community colleges in California. Specifically, the report looked at SSPIRE programs (Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education), which included approaches such as “drop-in” study centers, summer math courses, and college readiness courses.
The report argued that student success classes and similar “classroom-based interventions may have the advantage of reaching students who otherwise would not seek help …They may also be a more efficient means of enhancing student services than a model predicated on many individual appointments between students and counselors.”
The most compelling research showing the impact of comes from Florida, where students have taken “student life skills” classes. A 2006 study found that students who completed those classes were more more likely to earn a community college credential, transfer to the state university system, or still be enrolled in college after five years. A later study showed a “positive relationship between taking a student life skills course and various student success indicators — credential completion, persistence, and transfer.”
With obvious relevance for California, the researchers concluded the following:
Student life skills courses may contribute to positive outcomes by helping students early in the college experience to develop clearer goals for education and careers, better ideas of what it takes to succeed in college, and some practical skills useful for achievement.
This is one of a series of reports on key recommendations of the California Community College’s Student Success Task Force. Other reports focused on proposals to amend the requirements for receiving a Board of Governors fee waiver, and to draw up an “individual education plan” for all students.
For research and background material on the effectiveness of student success courses and other student support services, here are some relevant reports:
A 2007 report on education outcomes of students who participated in a “student life skills” course at Florida Community Colleges, along with an earlier study.
Evaluation of California’s SSPIRE (Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education) program.
Evaluation of Learning Communities at Queensborough and Houston Community Colleges.