Powering Progress: Increasing Community College Retention Rates

Wendy Blackmore
October 30, 2013

Jamari Jones* rushes into W-97 and quickly unloads his backpack onto the orange velour couch. “Miss Ashley, I did what you said. I read my Ethics homework and used the dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know and it really did help me understand. It was even kind of interesting,” he says with a quick flash of a smile. Jamari is one of 125 students who participate in the Oasis Resource Center (ORC) at Nashville State Community College. Working with primarily low-income, first-generation college students, the program boasts an 88 percent retention rate, a 25 percent increase over the community college as a whole. Ninety-two percent of ORC’s participating students are Pell eligible; 91 percent are enrolled in at least one remedial course; 44 percent are new Americans, and the average ACT score is 15.67. Working with a highly fragile student population, the ORC is having incredible results.

Their approach is bolstered by the recently released, What We Know About Nonacademic Student Supports,a research-based practitioner packet that links nonacademic student supports to student academic success, in an effort to help community colleges increase their retention and graduation rates. The packet, from The Community College Research Center, claims institutions must implement “pervasive supports” that are “Sustained, Strategic, Intrusive and Integrated, and Personalized” to effectively address student success within their limited budgets.

Through the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's College Access Challenge Grant and two TCASN grants, Ashley England, the ORC’s student success advocate, has been doing just that from inside a 15X20, thrift-store furniture filled room on the campus of Nashville State Community College for the past 14 months. An essential partner in the work, NSCC provided a dedicated space, access to relevant departments and data, and the opportunity for students to connect with England.

“First-generation, low-income students are less likely to engage in experiences, academic or social, that foster college success,” England said. “Therefore, we wanted to create opportunities for them to interact with one another, connect with the college and faculty members, participate in extracurricular activities, and access academic support services such as study groups and tutoring.”

In Fall 2012, ORC’s first cohort of students was formed through referrals from the Oasis College Connection Mentor Corps, a group of near-peer mentors that work with first-generation, low-income students in Metro Nashville Public High Schools. As students working with Corps mentors decided to attend Nashville State, the mentors would connect them with England.

Lee Gray, College Access Manager for Oasis College Connection, describes the pipeline from mentor to the ORC:  “The mentors stay in touch with Ashley about students who are likely to matriculate to Nashville State. From there, they decide how best to introduce the student to Ashley and what each student’s needs might be.”

How the ORC is Intrusive

England meets with the students multiple times during their senior year, building a relationship with them and guiding them along the complicated admissions and financial aid processes needed for enrollment. She reviews their financial aid awards to ensure their aid is in order and that the student has submitted all necessary paperwork.

After meeting them in their schools, England invites them to visit the ORC and coordinates with various groups, such as the Family Resource Center at Glencliff High School and the KIPP Through College program to arrange visits for students. She also reaches out to students over the summer, checking in to make sure they are on path to attend in the fall and preventing “summer melt”.

How the ORC is Strategic

To kick off the start of each academic year, the ORC hosts a multi-day Orientation for participating students. The agenda includes not only academic skills such as understanding a course syllabus and study habits, but also engages students in community building activities such as rock climbing and campus scavenger hunts. England doesn’t just guess at what the students need to hear during Orientation. Her agenda is based on the problems she sees students encounter during the school year and on what they tell her they want.

“I know most of them before they start. I know they will need a tutorial on navigating the college website, how to check their campus email and online course work, and I know I will need to tell them of the realities of taking remedial courses. But, I also ask them what they want to do. In fact, it was the students’ idea to participate in volunteer service projects this year.”

In its first year, operating under a TCASN Model Program Grant, the ORC learned the social emotional skills of its cohort needed more attention than anticipated. Many of the students have experienced trauma in the form of poverty, resulting in chaotic lives that lacked supportive adults. Others simply lacked exposure to soft skills, such as negotiation and consensus building, conflict resolution, or presentation skills. As they progressed through their education, they would encounter conflicts for which they were unprepared and unable to positively manage. To address this issue, England and Gray hosted a focus group in Spring 2013 to allow students an opportunity to voice their needs and concerns. As a result, ORC wrote for and was awarded a TCASN Exemplary Model Grant to provide seminars on the applied skills students identified as most needed to continue and further their educations and careers.

How the ORC is Sustained

The ORC space has become exactly what it was intended to be - a community lounge, outfitted with several laptops and stocked with snacks such as Pop-Tarts and Ramen Noodles. It is open from 9-5 each day and students gather there between classes to study, relax, receive tutoring, and hold small group activities. England can almost always be found inside the ORC’s dedicated space, providing advising and mentoring to students while planning events to keep them engaged. In August 2013, Harold Burdette joined England as an additional mentor support for students.

“We plan out activities each month that will keep the group engaged with one another and give them an opportunity to try something new,” says Burdette. “We also conduct workshops on topics the student identify as helpful. In the next few months we’ll volunteer together doing trail work in Warner Park and go to a haunted house for Halloween. Getting them off-campus together really helps build group cohesiveness and it spills into the ORC. We find students helping each other with math homework who didn’t know each other a month ago.”

Since inception, the ORC has served 125 students. On average, participating students meet with a student success advocate 12 times for individual counseling. This number does not include time spent “just hanging out” in the community lounge with the advocates and their peers.

How the ORC is Integrated

The ORC encourages all its students to meet with their assigned advisors for their major. England and Burdette also coordinate with faculty who teach remedial courses to make sure students are aware of academic expectations and to troubleshoot issues their students may encounter during class. Last Spring, for example, one of England’s new students was struggling after the first week of school. He seemed overwhelmed and was very nervous to talk to his professors. England knew this student had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) from high school, and she had already held a meeting with the student and the Disabilities Coordinator. She contacted his professors and arranged for the student to meet with each of them outside of class. There, the three talked about the student’s fears, accommodations, and ways to help him complete his coursework. This deeper level of integration helps prevent students from falling through the cracks, and it stretches beyond NSCC’s campus into the community. Several ORC academic tutors are volunteers from the Nashville community, and the ORC coordinates with other Oasis Center programs and outside agencies such as United Way's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, Oasis Center's counseling services, and Interfaith Dental Clinic to provide additional services.

How the ORC is Personalized

England and Burdette have personal relationships with the students they serve. They know their academic challenges, but they also know their relationship status and their weekend plans. The importance of establishing a relationship has been emphasized through research multiple times and its significance was recently highlighted again in InsideTrack’s article, Effectively Supporting Low-Income, First-Generation Students.

“Getting to know our students is paramount to helping them succeed in school. Without that personal connection and trust, we can’t have the conversations that are necessary to address the barriers that occur. If I don’t know a student well enough for them to tell me about their mom being sick or to hold them accountable for not studying for a test, then I’m not doing my job. But, I think that’s the beauty of the ORC. So many students are looking for that support and for someone to hold them to higher expectations. Our space gives them that.”

Follow the ORC on Twitter and on Facebook.

*Names have been changed to protect student identities.

This article was originally published by the Tennessee College Access & Success Network and is reprinted here with permission.