Community Colleges: A Safe Place for Struggling College Students
I recently met with a program director at a CSU school. He invited me to a conference about applications for Cal Grants. On the agenda: story tips, elevator pitches, and information about getting started.
I asked him: “Do you ever give advice to community college students?”
His reply: “Yes, I do. But as a CSU professor I don’t meet as much community college students. I’d guess it’s more on the graduate level.”
A new study by Mary H. Gossett, Derek Stanton, and a team of researchers at The Indiana University, shows that community college students find college mentors and scholarship opportunities very helpful in beginning college.
The results were published June 16 in The College Journal.
Community college students who are highly motivated, have significant test scores, or have financial need were more likely to encounter mentors at these institutions, compared to their peers in non-community college schools.
When this work was done at the 2007-08 school year, one in five students at community colleges reported encountering a mentor; of those, 8 percent reported receiving financial support from a donor. At non-community colleges, that figure was just one in 11.
Those findings fit with those of other studies. In 2009, Daniel Taylor of the Council of Community and Junior Colleges found that 9 percent of freshman at community colleges were able to get a financial benefit. No other college studied, however, was able to match the gains at community colleges.
Many community college educators believe mentors and scholarships help to alleviate the financial stress they feel. In research I did with Elinor and Dr. John Williamson, they believed that mentoring greatly improved student performance because mentoring helped ease anxiety and provided a way to create common goals. “This is a dynamic you can’t control,” Elinor told me, “but when you look for support, you can have the best experience you ever had.”
No other college studied was able to match the gains at community colleges.
If mentors play a role in improving performance, why is the community college performing differently than the other colleges?
It could be that community college students face academic challenges often beyond those of students in other schools. Many don’t begin to solve those problems until they have transferred to a four-year school and completed their undergraduate degree.
Community college is primarily an entry-level educational institution. It doesn’t teach courses in high-demand fields. The faculty aren’t specialists who are able to help students finish degrees. Community college faculty teach 20 percent fewer graduate courses than their counterparts at four-year schools. Many faculty are employed part-time, which is why attendance and retention rates are so low.
Every college attempts to provide students with guidance. Some students are more advanced than others and receive additional help from advisers. At least when I was in school, there was much more support for my community college experience.
I decided to investigate why community college students are in much more need of a caring environment.
During my research, I met many community college students who commented on how they wanted more help from people in their lives. Some felt it was easier for them at community colleges, since many of their friends were already in college. Students at community colleges also said they had more time to think about their lives, and when planning, they got help to weigh the pros and cons of their decisions.
When I looked at a map of all the communities I’d been to during the past few years, I found plenty of support for their experiences. From mentoring and scholarship offers to the place people felt they were most welcome—or least—with no question asked.
All of this makes sense to me. I feel so comfortable with my fellow students that when a mountain is in front of me, I am compelled to hike and escape. If I didn’t have a community to help me get through it, I don’t know what I would do. That was the lesson I learned at community college.