Getting there: the community college transition

We laugh when Garrison Keillor tells us that all the children in his hometown of Lake Woebegon are above average. How can that be true?

But what if the Minnesota storyteller were right? What if each and every one of our children had the capacity to be above average, in something if not in everything? And what if they couldn’t find what that was because you didn’t or couldn’t help them?

For many parents, that’s a recurrent nightmare.

All it takes to secure admission at SUNY Ulster, also known as Ulster County Community College, is a high-school diploma or a GED. The college is an open-enrollment institution.


For better or worse, the community colleges of America have long been regarded as places where the ill-prepared and marginal high-school graduates should go. But that’s changing. Community colleges are playing an ever-more-significant role in U.S. higher education. They enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduate students and are essential for workforce training and retraining.

More people are turning to community colleges for their educational needs during the current economic downturn. Here’s a snapshot from New Paltz, where the high-school newspaper, The Maroon, did a recent survey of its graduating class. Of the 143 graduates listed, 40 reported they planned to attend SUNY Ulster, 12 SUNY Dutchess, and 26 other SUNY colleges. Some 35 were going to private colleges in New York State, and 21 colleges outside the state. Four were undecided or planning to work.

It is important to have an informative picture of community college students, their goals, educational choices and outcomes. With this population, keeping the young people in school so they can succeed is a collective endeavor.

According to dean for enrollment management Ann Marrott, SUNY Ulster “has had a major focus on [student] retention since 2006.” The most recent six-year graduation rate for students who earn an associate’s degree is 31 percent, she said. Combined with students who receive an associate’s or other degree after transferring to another college, the proportion goes up to 45 per cent. Considering that many students, particularly older ones, aren’t seeking a degree when they enroll (“about a third never planned to get a degree, anyway,” she said) Marrott contends that the local community college has a pretty good completion record. (Some 32 percent of the entering 2012 fall class at SUNY Ulster were adults between the ages of 25 and 49.) An increasing number of transferees from community colleges are performing as well in four-year colleges as non-transfers do.

The real picture

The statistics game can be mind-numbing — and misleading. Last month six major higher-education associations, including the national community-college association, announced they would adhere to a new method of measuring student success. The present federal tracking system, which paints a grim picture of college completion, has been criticized for leaving many students out.

“This effort recognizes that the student experience today is very different from the one people have lodged in their memories from 50 years ago,” Diane Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, is quoted a saying in the June 24 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “And if legislators are going to base funding on performance, it’s important to use metrics that capture the real picture.”

Compared to a traditional four-year college, a community college has several important advantages for students. Open admission makes it easier to enroll regardless of prior academic record. Tuition and fees are lower. And community colleges have more flexible curricula and class schedules. For most students, they’re also closer to home.

For many students, coping with the new world after high school is not easy. And then there’s the physical isolation, too. The SUNY Ulster main campus is not exactly a hotbed of intellectual ferment.

Admissions officer Matt Green believes in “100 percent approachability.” “Retention starts the moment you talk to the students, so they don’t feel lost,” he said. “Talk to them and give them options.”

Community colleges have more nontraditional students than most four-year colleges do. Their students are more likely to be older; and only 31 percent of them are enrolled full time, in part because they are more likely to also be working. Furthermore, 40.8 percent of community college students nationally work full-time, compared to 22.8 percent of their four-year college counterparts.

Community college students are a mixed bag. Matt Green said that over a thousand Ulster high schoolers earn credits every year for taking SUNY Ulster courses, mostly in classes taught by schoolteachers at their own schools. This program, called Collegian, has been in place for about 15 years. A much smaller number of students get advanced placement to study at the college before graduating from high school.

Some 48 percent of the students in the fall 2012 entering class tested into developmental math, for which they take a remediation course. That’s approximately the national average. Students at local high schools take a developmental writing course first developed at Wallkill. Their tests are graded by SUNY Ulster English faculty and upon successful conclusion, these students take a college-level English course whose mid-terms and finals are graded similarly. The Kingston and Highland school systems are implementing that program this coming year.

Ask Teresa

SUNY Ulster career services director Karen Robinson described the efforts the school makes to counsel the students about their goals. They’re assigned a faculty advisor in their area. Reminders are sent to encourage registration. The school uses a technique called self-authorship, in which the students are encouraged to write profiles about their futures. “What’s the story you’re going to write?” they are asked.

Then there’s Ask Teresa. Retention specialist Teresa Howard describes herself as the one-stop shop for students with problems. Her picture is in a prominent place on the student electronic portal. Have a question on anything whatsoever? Howard generally responds to email inquiries within 24 hours.

“I have a pretty good reputation,” she said. “I sometimes tell the students, these are just excuses. Now tell me exactly what’s going on.”

Howard described herself as non-judgmental and pragmatic. “I tell them, this is how you get there. I can help, but students have to get their own motivation.”

Matt Green believes in frequent contact. The role of the staff, Matt Green believes, is to offer counseling without discouraging student independence. Though there’s been a lot of improvement, too many students are still failing to realize their above-average potential. “The problem,” he said, “is that we don’t see every student.”


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