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Report: Students work hard but aren’t engaged

While many community college students say their coursework is challenging, there is “ample evidence” colleges can do more to help more students do their best work, a report says.

“No one rises to low expectations,” says Vincent Tinto, a Syracuse University education professor and advisory board member of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which released the report today.

The report, including findings from a survey of more than 343,000 students on 585 community college campuses in 48 states, aims to help colleges assess the quality of education their students receive. Questions are based on research showing that the more engaged, or actively involved, students are in their schoolwork, the more likely they are to meet educational goals.

Of this year’s respondents, 59 percent said their primary goal is to receive an associate’s degree, and 52 percent planned to transfer to a four-year college. Nationally, about 36 percent of community college students earn a certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a federal data analysis by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College.

Many said they were working hard, but overall findings offered a mixed picture of the intersection between student effort and faculty expectations.

For example, 49 percent of students said they often or very often worked harder than they thought they would need to meet an instructor’s standards, and 68 percent described their exams as being more than moderately challenging.

Yet 67 percent of full-time students said they spend 10 or fewer hours preparing for class in an average week, and 24 percent said they always came to class prepared. Among full-time students, 29 percent said they have written four or fewer papers of any length during the current school year.

“Students aren’t going to learn to write well at that rate,” survey director Kay McClenney says.

When her organization asks students in focus groups about their academic experiences, she says, “one of the more poignant things we hear, and we hear it relatively often, is: ‘They don’t expect enough of me.’ ”

Colleges that keep expectations high also need to create an environment that enables success, the report says.

Studies consistently show, for example, that community college students who participate in orientation programs are more likely to be engaged in their studies. Yet 60 percent of students surveyed said they have not participated in such a program and don’t plan to.

The survey found comparable — or lower — participation rates in other programs known to enhance student engagement, including courses that teach study skills such as time management, and “learning communities,” in which groups of students study multiple subjects together.

Similarly, 39 percent of students say peer or other tutoring is very important, but 7 percent say they use tutors often, and 46 percent never do.

Many community colleges “are doing some things that are very helpful (for) small numbers of students,” McClenney says. “One of the challenges is how to (make) those kinds of experiences the norm for the way we work with students, rather than the exception.”

That’s not to suggest scaling up programs would be easy. Most community colleges operate on shoestring budgets. And the typical community college student is a time-pressed part-timer who juggles multiple responsibilities such as jobs or family.

But more institutions are taking steps to raise expectations and increase support, says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, a non-profit organization that represents 1,200 institutions.

“A lot of our students are coming into college not prepared to succeed,” Boggs says. “We’re not doing them any good by letting them fail.”

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