7 Steps to Success at Community College

Students start with high aspirations, but many don't finish. Here are some tips to reach your goal.

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Many start community college. Few are graduated two, three, or even six years later.

Community colleges are raising success rates by helping first year students connect with professors and classmates, concludes "A Matter of Degrees," which is based on surveys by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas—Austin.

[Get tips on how to pay for college.]

While there are "no silver bullets," first year students do better when they're in small, structured groups, says Kay McClenney, director of the center. "Promising practices" include grouping students in a "learning community" that takes several courses together or a "first year experience" program that creates a small community including faculty and staff. Student success courses that teach time management and study skills also help students make the transition to college life.

Students start with high goals, the new student survey found: 73 percent of entering students aim to complete an associate degree. Yet only 45 percent of those seeking a degree or certificate reach their goal within six years.

[Read more about how community college dropouts prove costly.]

The first year is critical. At Zane State College in Ohio, 90 percent of students who complete the first year—including students in remedial classes—go on to earn a degree or certificate.

Success rates would go up if more students studied for placement tests and avoided remedial classes, but few take advantage of study materials, "A Matter of Degrees" finds. As a result, 72 percent of those who take a placement test are told they need remedial reading, writing, or math. Once in developmental classes, most students don't use tutors or labs. Failure rates are high.

[Learn four ways to avoid taking remedial math courses.]

In addition, nearly half of new students don't seek help in choosing classes and even fewer talk to a counselor about balancing academics with work and family commitments.

Nearly all community colleges offer orientation and 83 percent provide student success courses. Fifty-eight percent design a first year experience and 56 percent set up learning communities.

Yet most students don't take advantage of the help that's offered. "Students don't do optional" is one of McClenney's "rules of the universe." In some cases, colleges should make participation mandatory, she argues. In others, colleges can integrate "student and academic supports into classroom experiences," such as teaching study skills or use of the library as part of academic courses. "Colleges should provide more structure, fewer options and clearer pathways for students," she concludes.

[See four more tips for finishing community college.]

Brazosport College in Texas requires all first time, in-college students to take Learning Frameworks, a student success course that teaches study skills, goal setting, college writing, conducting research, time management, handling stress, and other skills.

Associate Dean of Instruction Lynda Villanueva, who directs transitional education, lists seven steps to success for students:

1. Identify sources: Know the campus resources that are available to you before you need them.

2. Start early: Whether it is assignments, registering, visiting with an adviser, or visiting the tutor center, go early. Research shows that students who start early are more successful than students who don't.

3. Take the course: If given the option of taking a student success course, take it. Not all colleges require them, but they are one of the strongest support services a student can have.

4. Form contacts with peers: Again, research demonstrates that being engaged with others is a strong predictor of success.

5. Visit your professors: Instructors aren't scary and they enjoy visiting with students. Faculty are more likely to help students who are struggling when they have formed a relationship with them.

6. Appreciate feedback: Remember that feedback, even negative feedback, is an opportunity.

7. Never quit.

Joanne Jacobs writes Community College Spotlight for The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news site. Jacobs also blogs about K-12 education and is the author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.