Open Menu Close Menu

Support for Learners

Surviving Math, Surviving College

According to a 2000 community college study by Miami Dade College (FL) President Emeritus Robert McCabe, 41 percent of students entering community colleges are underprepared in at least one basic skill area.

A three-year study of community college students, published in 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics, reported that 41 percent of community college students who were "not directed" toward college completion dropped out during their first year. The fact that the percentages in the two studies are the same is a coincidence. What is not a coincidence is that unprepared and undirected students are the most at-risk for not graduating; bringing those students up to readiness in basic skills and putting them on a path toward graduation can mean the difference between retaining and losing their enrollment. Technology can offer community colleges a way to target learning support to students who most need it, when they need it. Here's one Florida school's story about addressing the toughest benchmark of all: meeting math graduation requirements.

Charlie CarrollLake City Community College VP of Instruction and Student Services Charlie Carroll

ENROLLMENT AT LAKE CITY COMMUNITY COLLEGE is up 20 percent from last year, according to Charlie Carroll, vice president of instruction and student services for the 7,000-student college in northern Florida.

But that increase is nearly nullified by the college's retention numbers. Of those new students classified as "not college ready"-- nearly two-thirds of new enrollments at Lake City who need at least one developmental course in reading, writing, or math-- only six out of 10 will return for a second semester. That retention rate drops to four out of 10 as students move into their second year. For college-ready students the numbers are better; 65 percent come back in year two.

Yet overall, by the beginning of year two, only 52 out of every 100 students in that previous year's cohort are still taking classes at Lake City. A 20 percent enrollment increase won't come close to covering the loss.

That dismal record troubles Carroll. "As somebody wiser than I once said, it is easier to retain than to recruit," he says. "If we could keep 60 percent between years one and two instead of losing 60 percent, then our enrollment is going to stay up." Seeking to catch hold of and redirect its students, the college introduced a successful mandate wherein students must declare a major by the time they've accrued 15 credit hours-- about a semester's worth of classes. Students are unable to register for additional courses until that's been done. "We're getting them focused on a target to work toward," Carroll says.

In addition, the college now has faculty contact students who miss a class within the first two weeks. When a student misses more than one class, the institution sends out a formal notification and student advisers do follow-up. Longer-term measures include bolstering professional development for faculty to improve their discourse methods and better engage students; providing funding to students dealing with life issues that make attendance at college difficult; and adding a teacher-in-residence program specifically to support those students identified as not college-ready.

Lake City has found that eight live tutors in the learning lab is not nearly enough to meet demand. Students need something they can go to immediately for math help.

Still, none of these efforts alleviates the biggest pain point for the majority of students: making it through math. Of all graduation requirements, math is the line in the sand. As Steve Robbins, vice president of research at ACT, Inc. described the dilemma in a March 2009 Innovators conference presentation on effective community college enrollment management, "If you don't ‘survive' math, you don't survive college."

The Math Hurdle

Like most two-year institutions, Lake City has an open-door policy in which it will enroll any applicant who has completed high school, regardless of academic record. That means, explains Carroll, that "a lot of those students haven't completed a higher-level math course in high school." Florida state law stipulates that every student has to pass two college-level math classes to get an associate of arts degree, and Lake City has done studies which show that "there is a significant relationship between the grade achieved in MAT0024 [algebra 1] and successful completion of MAT1033 [algebra 2]." Students who achieve A's and B's in that first class are more likely to complete the second algebra course, and thus go on to graduate.

Walking the Talk

Steven Sachs"TECHNOLOGY CAN HAVE tremendous potential for a positive impact on retention and graduation rates. But speaking first in terms of technology-supported courses, there is one caveat: To achieve the initiative's goals, any courses that will be built must be designed around the core that students need to graduate, not what people simply want to produce. I look back at the national telecourse model that grew up out of funds provided by Walter Annenberg, and a lot of the courses that were picked were based on agendas other than helping students reach graduation. So you had topics that were not in the core, taking the focus off the real mission of the funding. It's also important to consider a plan to keep courses current over time. If they are just left for everyone to adapt, modify, fix, or update at will, the courses will probably become so outdated that we lose them altogether."

-- Steven Sachs, vice president, instructional and information technology, Northern Virginia Community College

To ensure students successfully get past the math graduation hurdle, the college has set a requirement that all students in remedial classes have to spend an additional hour per week participating in a college wide learning lab. That lab provides human tutors, an occasional video conference with tutors from other Lake City campuses, as well as computers accessing tutoring software like MyMathLab (a supplement to Prentice Hall textbooks) and But like many community colleges, Lake City serves students across a wide geographic area-- in this case, five counties. Students, especially those enrolled in distance learning classes, aren't necessarily able to get to the lab in person. To help those students, the college also contracted with Smarthinking, an online service that connects students to master's degree- certified tutors on a 24/7 basis.

As Carroll explains, students link to the service through the campus Blackboard learning system. They submit questions or work to be checked, and a tutor on the service provides feedback. For most queries, he says, "The student will probably get something back within minutes. If [the tutor] finds more fundamental issues, he or she will try to analyze what's going on and get back to the student to try to remediate."

He initially expected that younger students-- presumably more digitally savvy-- would embrace the technology solution, but that hasn't been the case. "It's taken us two years to get student involvement with it," he says. "Part of it was learning how to do it. Now more of the students are using it, more of the faculty are encouraging use of it, and reports from Smarthinking show that the number of students and time on task have increased significantly."

Graduation Toolkit

The cost of the service is about equal to the expense of providing tutors in the learning lab. From an initial investment of $5,000 or $6,000, Carroll estimates that the college is now spending about $10,000 a year to purchase a set number of tutoring hours. But even as use of the service grows, it will never replace the live tutors in the learning lab. "I don't see it as an either/or," he says. "Both are dramatically necessary. What we've found is that even though we have about eight live tutors in our learning lab, that's not nearly enough. So even for students who are on campus and getting to the learning lab, having that Smarthinking capability gives them something to go to immediately, whenever they need the help."


  • Lake City Community College
  • No One to Waste: A Report to Public Decision-Makers and Community College Leaders, R.H. McCabe, Community College Press, Washington, DC, 2000
  • On Track to Complete? A Taxonomy of Beginning Community College Students and Their Outcomes 3 Years After Enrolling: 2003-04 through 2006, Laura Horn, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES publication 2009152), July 2009

At the time of this writing, Carroll had learned that the retention rate between the fall and spring of the 2008- 2009 school year appeared to have improved about 3.9 percent over the previous three comparable periods. The institution has set an annual retention-improvement goal of three percent, and this initial estimate handily beats that.

He doesn't yet know what to attribute the improvement to (Lake City is implementing a new computer system that will help with the analysis), but he's optimistic that the changes are finally paying off. "I've found that change in these two-year colleges often takes two to three years."

comments powered by Disqus