"Persistence" is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many community college students enter classes in the fall and soon disappear from campus—often before even the full academic year has passed. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students, especially those who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college. How do we help them to complete their classes and secure a degree? There’s a lot of variance in degree-attainment data, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low 20s.
There's Got To Be A Better WayEveryone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this. A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching or even wake-up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students lack confidence or independent life skills. They need exactly this type of treatment because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class and take careful notes—might not be so clear for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models. It is also often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation's community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates. There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared and motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control. These are the people I mean:
- I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Even though she tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.
- I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and doesn’t live near public transit. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors and he knows what he is missing in class. But by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.
- I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly retail job to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. She falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem for her budget—so she takes on extra shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. She loses study time and doesn’t fully recover from her illness and her wellbeing, classwork and grades suffer.
Andrew Wilk teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional ...