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Library Project Analyzes Student Success in Community Colleges

group of college students walking together

An initiative intended to consider the redesign of library services has revealed some interesting findings about community college students, including the many ways they define college success and what holds them back from achieving it.

The project is being undertaken by consultancy Ithaka S+R and Northern Virginia Community College, as well as six other community college partners, with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In the first phase of the study, project organizers conducted "semi-structured" interviews with 37 students from the seven participating colleges. Those interviews were summarized in a newly published report, "Amplifying Student Voices: The Community College Libraries and Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASS) Project." The report encompassed five broad topics: how students chose their schools, their objectives and goals, how they defined success, the challenges they faced and coursework practices. The aim of the interviews was to better understand the people interviewed as students rather than library users. In fact, nowhere in the interview script was the term "library" mentioned.

How did students choose their schools? Location, cost and reputation influenced decisions. Participants said proximity to home and easy commuting were important. Likewise, affordability surfaced, as did the school's "general reputation" as a "good college." Finally, about half of the students said they were simply returning to the same college where they'd originally enrolled to finish their coursework, sometimes with a gap in attendance and sometimes not.

The interviews found that students define success in many ways, primarily focusing on career and educational achievement or personal development. There were "extrinsic goals," such as "obtaining a certificate or associate's degree, getting good grades, career advancement and financial security, and building a pathway towards additional education"; and intrinsic goals, such as "gaining knowledge, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and developing social skills and a sense of community." Students also defined success in terms of feeling a "sense of accomplishment, bettering themselves and being happy."

The students' challenges are numerous: balancing work and school, paying the cost, making childcare arrangements, overcoming language barriers, having reliable transportation and navigating resources and services at their college. Completing coursework also surfaced as a struggle. Math especially proved difficult. As the report noted, "A number of students mentioned having to retake math courses multiple times, and one student reported that a number of their classmates had to leave the college because they couldn't pass one of the remedial math classes." Even when students went to their professors or pursued tutoring for help, the results were "mixed."

The interviews also asked participants for details related to completing their coursework. Most do it at home or on campus, anyplace "that is quiet and free of distractions." That could be the library, computer lab, tutoring center or writing center. Many prefer to do their work in the library "because it's quiet and they are less prone to being distracted compared to time spent at home or in other spaces." Nobody mentioned problems in finding places to collaborate on projects with their classmates.

Rarely in the course of doing work do students confer with the librarians. Their preferences for finding information include turning to Google, including search and translate services and Google Scholar; relying on the resources specifically designated by their instructors; and turning to their "wider social network" for support with tasks such as proofreading, getting feedback and checking answers. A notable exception to the infrequent use of librarian help was one college that has an "especially effective 'college success' course," where most students learn how to use college resources and services, including those in the library, as part of their pursuit of academic success.

The next stage of the project will develop service concepts that meet "student-identified needs" and assess those in a survey at each of the partner community colleges later this year; a separate report with those findings will be published in 2019. In the third phase the group will publish a toolkit for community colleges to enable them to test the service concepts themselves or develop other concepts relevant specifically to their populations.

A more detailed set of findings from the interviews is openly available on the Ithaka S+R website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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