Realities of Community College and Students’ Academic Engagement

Dr. Anthony Hancock, Ph.D., the Dean, Consumer Arts & Sciences Center of Excellence at the HCC was not just interested in enrolling students into the curricula, but expressively passionate about engaging them from the point of entry through the finishing lines of academic and workforce attainment.

“Besides excellence in operational values and objectives, if the programs are not responsive to needs of the community; do not inspire economic growth and enlarge workforce accomplishments for students – it is not a community college.”

By Dr. Anthony Obi Ogbo

Pacifying undergraduates was not what I had envisioned – not anytime soon. A greater part of my career was in the mainstream media industry, where the mechanistic nature of the newsroom suppresses emotions. Success requires management capability, prioritization, a  division of labor, authority, a  unity of command, and discipline (Taylor, 1911). In the newsroom arena, it is the survival of the fittest and to cap it up;  mediocrity is unacceptable.  At some point as a Newsroom Director, I lost any emotions to ensure workplace loafers had no place. Novice employees who would be asking about lunchtime rules instead of the editorial calendar process did not survive under my supervision because the chaotic newsroom environment demands an account for every second that the clock ticks.

However, brush with the college system changed all that, and rejuvenated me as a born-again faculty fellow, who seeks successes of novice employees, students, and other categories of learners. It is a major challenge for the leadership to ensure that novices turn brilliant professionals. As the Strategic Advisor, Consumer Arts & Sciences Center of Excellence at the Houston Community College (HCC), our covenant is to build a strategy-oriented culture that amplifies recruitment. A process that boosts retention and accelerates both graduation and workforce possibilities; one that integrates the three significant missions of the community college system: education as it benefits university transfer, occupational prospects, and career progress.

I sat down for a 45-minute conversation with Dr. Anthony Hancock, the Dean, Consumer Arts & Sciences Center of Excellence at the HCC who oversees my operations. Strategy discussions were dominated by themes related to effective coordination of student’s  retention, certification in relevant disciplines, and workforce possibilities. The Consumer Arts & Sciences provide technical design, fashion, food, culture, costume, beauty, interior and kitchen design training through a degree or certificate programs in, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, Fashion Design, Fashion Merchandising, Hospitality Administration, and Interior Design.

Armed with statistical transcriptions of operations and progress in his faculty, Dr. Hancock was not just interested in enrolling students into the curricula, but expressively passionate about engaging them from the point of entry through the finishing lines of academic and workforce attainment. Schooled in the complex field of faculty operations and management, Dr. Hancock hinted some improvement opportunities in the existing strategy of students’ engagement. He was not satisfied with the status quo and had structured a thread of system transformation models that would strategically reposition the COE to an entirely different level.

There were concerns, however, after reviewing the progress report summary of the Department. The report showed higher enrollment with much lower retention and graduation rates. In fact, the irreconcilable gaps in these rates raised some apprehensions. The expediency of how managing retention strategies could impact the enrollment landscape in the community college system were areas requiring more clarity. Consistent with this are some numbers or information from the National Student Clearinghouse (2017) regarding progress in certificate and degree completion, which reads:

“Of all students who began college at a two-year public institution in 2010, 30 percent completed their first certificate or degree at a two-year institution and 9.3 percent  completed their first certificate or degree at a four-year institution, for an overall completion rate of 39.32 percent.”

Subsequently, among major problems with Community Colleges discussed in a recent report by the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, low completion rates among students took the front seat. Thus, challenges in program management of the community college system have not subsided in generating surprise statistical consequences. These are interlocked with the devastations of early attrition in enrollment and retention management; pains of financial aid enrollment and process; through students’ unforeseen life factors, the burden of academic difficulties, and categories of overwhelming economic and social complications (Community College Executive Forum, 2015).

The hallmark of every academic institution is to render quality education to students. The challenging part of what makes the community college great are approaches to understanding the students, their needs, and aspiration s. It is about investing in academic leaders that see the student as a spiritual responsibility rather than a subject for job responsibility. It would be about creating a culture where those responsible for students see tasks as a career rather than routine jobs.

Ideas and solutions about effective corroboration of enrollment, retention and graduation and most significantly, workforce opportunities might vanish into obscurity if  the institution’s organizational structure does not accommodate and integrate strategy-oriented values and concepts.  Strategies must be one that recognizes and integrates occupational prospects and career advancement as   foundational non-negotiable objectives.

Amidst other significant factors, a literature review of major academic journals unanimously adopted  ‘engagement’ as a major retention tool, and this is true. Engaging students means managing their success; it means identifying their challenges and supporting their academic activities from enrollment to the finishing lines of their careers.  For instance, Paul Smith’s College created a model that unified retention of high-risk students and promot ed broad-based academic success. The method used technology as a communication hub between students, instructors, advisors, student support staff, and administrative offices.

Paul Smith’s College approach yielded the necessary result in her quest for retention through engagement. The support program was structured into four main phases: (1) identification of high students, (2) intervention with identified students and (3) feedback to faculty; an d (4) assessment and evaluation (Taylor & McAleese, 2016). This model adopted a 3-level warning flag system: informational, action and urgent, to appropriately identify students threatened by academic or other challenges. These students are referred to the appropriate support services.

But Dr. Hancock’s Consumer Arts & Sciences Center of Excellence at the HCC has another engagement approach similarly geared toward using the effective communication system to engage and manage students’ academic activities and success. He  proposed a peer-engagement model called the Dean’s Student’s Advisory Committee. This entails using a team of students chosen from every department to act as liaisons between the student/classroom environment and the COE management. Individuals in this committee are inducted with basic tools to communicate students’ needs, issues and basic classroom activities with both the faculty and the management.

Isolating students in any process that administer their academic welfare might create a missing link in sustaining their footpath to success. Strong advisory programs strategically fulfill this purpose of connectedness through a healthy academic environment, to boost the way students relate to one another, as well as the way they related to both the faculty and the management. In fact, the process in most cases could help students reconcile issues among themselves, deliberate on their issues, brainstorm on their prospects, and convey relevant matters to the authorities.

This model is not new in the community college system. For instance, the Student Advisory Group (SAG) run by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) at the Stafford University advises the Vice Provost VPUE on initiatives and brings student issues and interests for discussion. The model solidifies retention through collaboration with students, faculty, schools, and departments across the university. Similar to that is the University of Maryland’s Student Advisory Group which operates a diverse group of students appointed by the Dean  to facilitate discussions about the changing nature of libraries. Most significantly, this group advises the dean on matters of concern to them. The University of Michigan model, called the Community-Engaged Academic Learning, uses Student Advisory Group Engagement (SAGE) to collaborate with faculty, staff, and students to create and enhance engaged learning opportunities.

Whereas all the above models gear toward engagement of students for academic success, an effective implementation must corroborate other enrollment and retention opportunities. A flawed enrollment process might signal a bumpy academic experience,  and might leave students confused and overwhelmed by the complexity of choices and procedures — which may result in their dropping out of college without making active decision to do so.  Jaggars, et al. (2014) suggested a 3-phrase redesign process—first is to gather data on how students experience intake, orientation, registration, advising, and the overall process of academic decision-making. Second, to use the findings to identify areas for improvement and devise solutions, and third  would be to research implementation processes and procedures.

The operations of the Community College system may not be easily achieved until administrators understand their fundamental covenant to both the students, the community, and the system. It is true that the community colleges offer various degree programs, and in fact, create effective channels for students transferring to the University, but this  is just one of the many roles. School administrators excited about the “University-transfer” role of the community college system must note that; the community college system is not, and must not be seen as a recruiting hub for Universities.

Most communities embrace this college system as their cultural and educational center for postsecondary education and training resource. From labor force preparatory centers;   tutoring students in preparation for higher education; to community improvement initiatives; the community college remains the nation’s economic catalyst, building the right skills, partnering with businesses, and supplying them with proficient workforce prospects. Measuring completion strategies must, therefore, focus on   impeccable enrollment; strategy-oriented engagement; delivery of quality academic programs; and workforce attainment. Besides excellence in operational values and objectives, if the programs are not responsive to needs of the community; do not inspire economic growth and enlarge workforce accomplishments for students – it is not a community college.

References:

Jaggars, S. S., Fletcher, J., Stacey, G. W., & Little, J. M. (2014). Simplifying complexity in the student experience. New York

National Center on Education and the Economy (2013). http://ncee.org/2013/05/statistic-of-the-month-comparing-community-college-completion-rates/

National Student Clearinghouse (2017). The Role of Community Colleges in Postsecondary Success. Community Colleges Outcomes Report, Herndon, VA 201710117-0. nscresearchcenter.org.

Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Taylor, L & McAleese, V. (2016). Beyond Retention: Supporting Student Success, Persistence and Completion Rates through a Technology-based, Campus-wide, Comprehensive Student Support Program. U.S. Department of Education. Paul Smith’s College State, New York

Wild, L., & Ebbers, L. (2002). Rethinking student retention in community Colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26: 503- 519, 2002. DOI: 10.1080/02776770290041864

 

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♦ Dr. Anthony Obi Ogbo is the Publisher of Houston-based International Guardian, and Strategic Advisor , COE Consumer Arts & Science at the Houston Community College, Central Campus. He joined the print media in 1981 and has remained in that industry till date.

The Consumer Arts & Sciences provide technical design, fashion, food, culture, costume, beauty, interior and kitchen design training through a degree or certificate programs in, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts, Fashion Design, Fashion Merchandising, Hospitality Administration, and Interior Design.

 

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