Overcoming the Biggest Barrier to Student Success

By Ron Bleed, vice chancellor IT
Maricopa Community Colleges

In order to overcome the biggest barrier to student success, higher education must understand that the residential experience that is portrayed in many glorified forms and memories is a reality today for only a small minority.

Although my research is from the Maricopa Community Colleges (AZ), the results are applicable to many other types of colleges--an estimated 87 percent of all students in the US now commute to their campuses, according to the National Clearinghouse for Commuter Programs, University of Maryland.

Another realization is the importance of successful course completion rates: One of our primary businesses is the offering of courses. The vast majority of the budget dollars is spent on courses, and the primary use of capital funds is to build and maintain facilities that hold courses. Most employees are hired for the purposes of teaching and supporting courses. Numerous research studies have been conducted on student retention or attrition in courses. The results of these works attempted to explain student retention upon a student’s experiences and interest prior to enrollment and the amount of the student’s academic integration with the college environment. Colleges implemented intervention strategies, orientation programs, and mentoring programs in attempts to improve retention. All these strategies and programs are good and needed. However, the biggest barrier to student success is overlooked.

To understand this barrier to student success requires a look at who our students really are. Like most students in higher education—but contrary to popular college mythology—our students are not “captured” for their course work. Although a preferred stereotype of college students exists in the minds of the public, faculty, and administration, the realities are that the vast majority of students at Maricopa Community Colleges and most other colleges do not fit what we want them to be or do.

A 2004 analysis at the Maricopa Community Colleges of the completion rates of students within courses shows the “ facts” of our situation. The course schedule is the most significant factor in our student retention/attrition rates. Because our students are not “captured,” the type of course scheduling they experience is the largest factor in their successful completion rate. The type of course with the lowest successful student completion rate was the traditional, day, full semester with multiple fixed seat times per week.

The differences in successful course completions range from 7 to 29 percentage points between day, full semester, fixed seat time courses, and the other courses that have less fixed seat time requirements. The differences significantly impact enrollment counts, budget, and cost to students.

The primary reasons students do not complete successfully are because of their personal “life interruptions.” The list of “life interruptions” is long. Some of the more common interruptions: students nearly all work and are in jobs that have changing work schedules; all use cars (that are expensive to operate and do breakdown) to commute to a campus because there is minimal public transportation available; most have financial limitations; many have family obligations and interruptions; all are subject to illness; and many have difficulties with their housing arrangements. Today the large majority of students do not have the luxury of complete dedication of their time toward their college courses.

The longer and more fixed the classroom schedule is, the greater probability exists that students will encounter a life interruption that disrupts their learning experience. Colleges agonize over retention and attrition rates of students and generally recognize the life interruption issue and implement some interventions and new programs as solutions. However, the most effective solution of making the course schedule more flexible is seldom proposed.

It is important to note that advisement is often criticized as the problem. However, less than 1 percent of the students dropped a course because of poor advisement, 7 percent because of academic difficulties, and only 3 percent because of a too-heavy academic load. Mandatory placement and rigorous course pre-requisites are commonly thought of as major solutions to course retention. However, only 10 percent of students who dropped may have been aided by such strategies.

Life interruptions as reflected in the reasons of excessive absences, work schedule change, personal issues, family problems, health, transportation, housing moves, and the like were 65 percent of the reasons for students dropping a course.

If we are to be student centered, we must overcome one of the older designs of higher education and move toward course redesign that gives greater time flexibility from the student’s viewpoint. One of the promising strategies for new course redesign is the hybrid or blended format. A growing body of national research shows that replacing some of the fixed seat time in a course with technology-delivered content and building physical spaces for social learning leads to improved learning, greater student completion rates, lower costs to the student and to the college, and greater flexibility for students who are not “captured” on a campus.

In summary, first let’s begin the process to greater student success by understanding who our students really are and the incompatibility of our course scheduling with their life interruptions. Second, let’s look at new formats for our courses that reduce the amount of fixed seat time requirements and still increase the learning experience.

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