Rethinking Student Retention Strategies at Community Colleges

Are you aware of the specific dropout rate at your institution? When are they most likely to occur? Maybe the first three weeks, the first six weeks, or a student’s second semester of enrollment. Do you know which student personas are more at-risk of leaving?

All eyes on community college and higher ed leaders.

The topic areas of increasing persistence, retention, graduation and transfer rates has taken the higher education discussion by storm. From adding new assessment trends to our back pocket, to the importance of an overall student engagement strategy, it’s becoming apparent that we need intentional partnerships and a multi-pronged approach to help students succeed.

Two-year campus leaders are adept at shifting program focuses and curriculum to meet the needs of the community economies, and national economy at large. Placing a large emphasis on the curricular experience often fails to address the other half of the solution to retention: the student experience.

From an administrator lens, we must understand that most students are navigating along Chickering’s (1969) first three student development vectors: achieving self-confidence, managing emotions, and developing autonomy. By assessing the community college co-curricular experience with new technology, we can begin to pair engagement trends with Chickering’s framework and specific learning outcomes to provide students with better co-curricular experiences.

And that’s what students truly want: to make meaning through their co-curricular experience in their college career.

The challenging part for community college leaders is two-fold: understanding what makes students feel successful and knowing which metrics to measure in the co-curricular life. To date, there are still very few studies about various types of community college student involvement and the impact of involvement on community college students. Yet, the studies that have been explored show assessments of co-curricular programs having a positive impact on student success and persistence at a community college level.


Community colleges enroll some of the most diverse student bodies, and it can be difficult to provide comprehensive and targeted programming to meet their needs. With so many students who are also working full-time, parenting, first-generation, or low-income, creating meaningful co-curricular engagement experiences is a huge challenge, and often an area of low resources, funding, and focus.

How do we engage each of the student personas or groups and offer them meaningful involvement opportunities?

Chickering’s work suggests that we utilize methods to promote development and co-curricular growth. We can offer students free food (pizza, anyone?) and a chance to socialize, but what are we offering them in terms of value? We need to communicate and demonstrate the value, and pair that with community college student needs.

Within involvement, we can work to develop students through these five stages:

1. Engage students in making choices

2. Require interaction with diverse individuals and ideas

3. Involve students in direct and varied experiences

4. Involve students in solving complex and intellectual social problems

5. Involve students in receiving feedback and making objective self-assumptions

We can use this framework to guide the creation of varied involvement opportunities that are both meaningful and personal.

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Here we dive into specific examples to continue a much needed conversation to support community college leaders and students, and find solutions to some of the toughest community college student challenges to date.

Assessing Successful Engagement Strategies

For students struggling to find community on or off-campus, not feeling welcomed, or on track, can lead into a downward spiral relatively quickly.

It’s best to be proactive about retention strategies across departments before students arrive to campus. It’s important for students to feel part of the community before they start classes, whether solely online, hybrid, or in-person. Creating a sense of belonging for students is every department’s responsibility at a community college.

Assessing engagement provides community college and two-year leaders with tools to make informed decisions around co-curricular program design and resource allocation (whether personnel or budgeting).

Institutions have options to track and assess this engagement, in a uniform manner, allowing staff to adapt programming early, and often, to better serve student needs. Additionally, this engagement data, when paired with academic data, can provide a much more comprehensive understanding of retention, and the factors influencing it. Questions engagement and involvement quantitative and qualitative data can answer include:

  • What co-curricular opportunities would our student body appreciate?
  • What do their lives looks like outside of school?
  • What kind of access do they have to on-campus/off-programming?
  • Which student personas or populations are the most engaged? Most unengaged?

Comprehensive real-time analytics take the guesswork out of data; professionals can immediately know what’s working and what’s not working.

All of these factors come together to provide two-year student affairs professionals with substantial challenges to overcome, often with little funding. Part of the solution here lies in a comprehensive assessment plan. It’s nearly impossible to improve engagement, retention, and transfer/graduation rates, without a way to consistently measure these factors across campus.

National agencies are coming together to offer networks, trainings and grants to improve student success through engagement. Networks like Achieving the Dream are offering evidence based improvement plans for community colleges to close the achievement gap. ACPA’s most recent Commission for Two-Year colleges meeting featured presentations focused on the partnership of academic and student affairs and fostering a culture of assessment in student affairs.

On a state level, many state governments are granting funding to two-year colleges in the form of programs to help improve student success and retention. In New York, the CUNY ASAP Program nearly doubled the share of student graduating within three years because of the multi-pronged intervention services. In California, programs like CAL Works and Equity grants focus on increased access, completion and transferability based on ‘success indicators’ for specific underrepresented demographics.

The consistent challenges with lots of these grants, is their success is contingent upon a uniform method of tracking interactions in non-academic (i.e. student affairs) programs to demonstrate their effectiveness.

As campuses work to improve engagement, retention and graduation/ transfer rates, an investment needs to be made in integrated solutions to assess the involvement of students at all of the different touch points across campus. Further, there needs to be more consistent demographics associated with this assessment, to gain a better understanding of how the most at-risk students are, or are not, getting engaged.

Your Thoughts!

Even with reliable tools such as the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE), student engagement still remains difficult to measure. Self-reported student data remains questionable as some students find questions uncomfortable or not inclusive to answer.

In the past, we’ve focused on a “one-size fits all” approach, benchmarking our efforts with institutions next to us, when we truly need to focus on our own engagement, and benchmark our own growth against where we’d like to, and need to be.

We’re excited to work with community colleges to better measure, track, and analyze student engagement and involvement to help establish a more comprehensive approach to baseline data. Based on the results community colleges gather, then can professionals design and implement appropriate programming and frameworks to better support community college students.

Continue the conversation with us on Twitter at @hellopresence, @linds_murdock & @andygould84! Thanks for reading and engaging.

Interested in how Presence can help you measure student engagement? Set up some time to chat with one of our Engagement Specialists to see what our student engagement platform can do for your campus.

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Lindsay Murdock

About the author: Lindsay is a past Engagement Specialist at Presence. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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