Improving student retention: Understanding why community college students drop out
Although the number of students enrolling in community college has been increasing, only one third of students graduate within six years (Sharpio, et al., 2017). The low graduation rates suggest that community college students face additional barriers to their continued enrollment compared to students at 4-year universities. To date, no existing study employs qualitative research methods to explore how community college students who already dropped-out describe their experiences. This paper uses interviews with these students to develop an understanding of what led them to leave college. The evidence from this study suggests that students struggled with three obstacles that contributed to their decision to drop-out: coordinating competing demands, choosing coursework, and utilizing effective college strategies. In addition to providing a better understanding of student experiences in community college, this paper also presents suggestions for institutional supports that would assist students in remaining enrolled.
Community colleges were created to provide open access to higher education for all. Over the past three decades, community college enrollment numbers have increased 48% (McIntosh & Rouse, 2009) to accommodate nearly half of all college enrollments (NCES, 2018). As open access institutions, community colleges provide an opportunity to democratize higher education. The mission of community colleges is to welcome all to learn, “regardless of wealth, heritage, or previous academic experience” (American Association of Community Colleges, 2018). Indeed, students often choose between going to community college and not attending college at all (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Coca, 2009).
The growth in enrollment at community colleges suggest an increase in access to higher education. Yet, student retention remains a critical issue. Although students start community college with the goal to earn a credential, many do not make progress towards attaining a certificate or a degree. A National Student Clearinghouse (Sharpio, et al., 2017) report indicates that of the students who enrolled in a 2-year public college during the start of the 2011, only 34% would graduate by 2016. Of those who did not graduate, 15% were still enrolled at the institution.
Inequalities are present within these numbers as well. Higher proportions of White-identifying students complete their degrees compared to Hispanic- and Black-identifying students (Shapiro et al., 2017). Furthermore, researchers have found that completion rates remain correlated with socioeconomic advantage (McIntosh & Rouse, 2009). Thus, students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are the most likely to reap the benefits of community college: receiving a low-cost education and transferring to a four-year institution.
There are several factors that could contribute to the low graduation rates of community colleges. For one, community colleges regularly have more prospective students than they can adequately serve, in addition to being chronically underfunded (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). One study found funding to be associated with higher student retention rates (Bailey, et al., 2006). Indeed, underfunding leads to overloaded classes that stall student progress, as well as forces cutbacks in needed student services. Furthermore, students at community colleges are more likely to possess characteristics that have been associated with lower student retention compared to students at four-year institutions. On average, more community college students identify as the first in their family to attend college, need remedial coursework and come from less affluent backgrounds (American Association of Community Colleges, 2012). Thus, community colleges have the fewest resources with which to educate some of the most disadvantaged students (Bailey & Morest, 2006).
In addition, studies indicate that community college students are pursuing suboptimal pathways through college that can decrease the likelihood of college success. Previous research demonstrates an association between full-time, continuous enrollment and the likelihood of degree completion (Adleman, 2005; Attewll, Heil, & Reisel, 2012; O’Toole, Stratton, Wetzel, 2003; Costa, 2014). Students who enroll full-time and do not interrupt their studies at any point are more likely to complete. Yet, only 31% of community college students enroll full-time and about a quarter of students stop their studies at some point within the first 9 months of enrollment (Horn & Nevill, 2006). Often, students must make these enrollment decisions because of competing external responsibilities. After all, community college students are predominantly older than traditional college students, a third are married with children and a fourth are single parents. About 80% work in addition to attending school (Horn & Nevill, 2006). Although research has importantly established a relationship between these student characteristics and success in community college, additional research is needed to understand why this relationship exists and the supports that will assist all students succeed.
Several qualitative studies find that community college students often face information barriers, which can negatively affect their success in college (Person, et al., 2006; Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2003). As many community college students are the first in their family to attend college, they may not come to school with previous knowledge on how certain college processes work (such as signing up for classes or completing financial aid forms) nor the social network where this information is accessible, which are more characteristic of white, middle- to upper-class students (Stanton-Salazar, 1997). In fact, parent education is associated with a student’s likelihood of persisting towards a college degree, even after controlling for income, student expectations, academic preparation and peer influence (Choy, 2002). Likewise, in a survey of community college students, Person & Rosenbaum (2006) found Latino students self-reported being the least informed about college requirements, while White students reported the highest levels of information. Furthermore, in interviews with community college students, the same study found that Latino students more often sought advice from family or friends rather than instructors or school staff (Person & Rosenbaum, 2006). As these studies demonstrate, informational structures at community colleges can favor students who have previous knowledge of college processes or who have a social network to access this information. These studies suggest that the lack of this knowledge can impede on student success in college.
Academic advising is one resource that can mitigate informational barriers. Bahr (2008) found that advising increased a students’ chance of success, and that this was even more so for students who had higher academic needs. Along the same lines, community college students who successfully transferred to four-year institutions often cited an individual at their institution who was critical in providing the information needed to transfer (Bensimon, 2007). Similarly, Deil-Amen (2011) found that institutional agents were key in a student’s academic and social integration in community college, which they found to be associated with higher student retention. However, students with higher pre-existing social and cultural resources are more likely to take advantage of support services (Karp, et al., 2008), a structure which can perpetuate inequalities.
Indeed, there may be barriers that restrict students from accessing important support services. For one, students may not know how to seek out advice from counselors or how to engage with resources on campus (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2006; Stanton-Salazar, 1997). Additionally, if students do not feel safe in the campus environment, they will be less likely to seek out resources (Bensimon, 2007). Thus, support staff and faculty must proactively engage students. In several cases, Deil-Amen (2011) found that students who did not access assistance chose to depart from the college or extend their time there.
Worthy of note is a related robust body of work that examines factors associated with student persistence. Tinto (1993)’s much cited and critiqued model of student persistence for four-year college students examines how student academic and social integration is associated with student persistence. Although researchers have critiqued the application of Tinto’s theory to the community college context because of differences in student experience, others have found applicability to community college students (Deil-Amen, 2002; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Karp, O’Gara, & Hughes, 2010; Bean & Metzner, 1985). However, these studies differ in regard to which form of integration is most important and whether integration is associated with student persistence. The multiplicity of findings aside, Tinto, and others, do not provide an overview of why students choose to drop out, the factors of which may be different than those associated with student persistence.
While the issue of student retention has been highly discussed, limited research examines why students drop out of college. In fact, no other study qualitatively examines the perceptions of students who dropped out of community college. In one related study, Conklin (1997) surveyed students about their reasons for dropping courses. The researcher found that the most cited reason for dropping classes was work conflicts and personal issues. However, Conklin (1997), did not extend their research to examine how institutional factors can affect a student’s decision to drop courses and did not specifically talk to students who dropped all courses at their college. This paper focuses on the students who dropped out of community college. I use detailed student interviews to illustrate the experiences of students who have dropped out, why they chose to drop out, and what would have assisted them in remaining enrolled.
Qualitatively examining this question is important for several reasons. First, there are limited qualitative studies that investigate issues surrounding community college student success. Although many studies have quantitatively examined factors associated with higher student persistence, as Karp, et al. (2010) notes, there still lacks an understanding of “the students who leave, why they leave and how they could be motivated to return”. Existing qualitative work has examined institutional supports which, the lack of, can cause students to contemplate leaving college (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2003), but do not talk directly with students who did leave college. There has been a call for additional qualitative studies by educational researchers and policy makers to understand variations in community college student experiences (Bailey, et al., 2006). If community colleges are to achieve the goal of democratizing higher education, adaptations must be made to ensure all students are successful.
Although previous research has, importantly, examined institutional and student factors associated with higher student retention, little has been published on why students choose to drop out of community college. Further, no existing study uses qualitative methods to ask students who have already dropped out why they chose to leave. Focusing on the barriers to continued enrollment that community college students face, this article is centered on the experiences of students who have dropped out. This study sought to answer the following question: 1. Who is dropping are dropping out of one community college in Southern California? 2. Why are students dropping out? and 3. What institutional supports would assist students in remaining enrolled? In examining these points, I identify three obstacles to students’ continued enrollment: 1. Coordinating competing demands, 2. Choosing coursework, and 3. Utilizing college strategies. Findings suggest that additional support services would assist students in overcoming these barriers to continued enrollment. The remainder of the chapter is structured in three sections. First I present a brief note on the context and methodology of the study. Next, a description of who is dropping out is provided, with attention to specific sub-groups who are leaving at higher rates. Third, I provide an overview of findings from interview participants and implications for institutional changes.
Data were collected through interviews with students who attended one community college in Southern California. By the second week of the 2017-18 academic year, 1,139 students dropped courses after enrolling and paying campus fees. From this group, 430 students were purposefully selected to participate in the study based on demographic characteristics and credits completed. Specifically, students were sampled if they applied for financial aid, were between the ages of 17 and 40 years old, and were enrolled in at least 3 units (at least one course). Additionally, the college has seen a decrease in African American students, and all identifying were included in the sample.
Sampled students were emailed an invitation to participate in the study. Next, I followed-up with students who responded to the invitation to conduct phone interviews. The interview protocol was created in conversation with the college’s academic senate. Topics include questions concerning student academic and career goals, responsibilities outside of school, and experiences at the college. Three current community college students and one researcher in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness assisted in conducting interviews.Community college students were trained in interviewing techniques prior to data collection. A total of 50 interviews were conducted. Interviews lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Interviewers took extensive notes on student responses to interview questions for analysis.
The final sample of students consisted of 48% Hispanic/Latino, 30% Asian, 12% White, 4% Black/African American, 4% Multiracial, and 2% Other. The average GPA was 2.93 (SD = 0.879). About 14% of students in the sample were enrolled full time and 86% were enrolled part time. Similarly, 14% of students were new to the college that year while 86% continued from a previous year. Around 44% of students were under the age of 25, 54% were ages 25 and older, and for 2% age was unknown. The average age for students was 27 years old. Approximately 72% of the sample was female, 24% was male, and for 4% gender was unknown.
Interviews were analyzed using thematic content analysis, as described by Saldaña (2016). Interview data was coded both deductively and inductively. First, I coded the respondents’ answers to specific interview questions about their experiences in and out of college. I then coded for themes that emerged across all cases. I focused on themes related to institutional factors that could facilitate or hinder students continued enrollment. Through the analysis process, three themes common across respondents were elicited. Included are issues surrounding: coordinating competing demands, choosing coursework, and utilizing college knowledge. The findings below are arranged by categories created in the coding process.
The purpose of this article is to better understand why students choose to drop out of community colleges and the institutional factors that could has assisted them in remaining enrolled. In the analysis of interview data, results presented here are clustered into several broad themes: coordinating competing demands, choosing coursework, and utilizing college strategies. Before advancing to the discussion of themes, a description of the students who dropped coursework is provided.
Dropout rate disaggregated by demographic and enrollment characteristics:
This study examined the experiences of students who dropped out of one community college in Southern California. At the start of the 2017-18 academic year, a total of 26,237 students were enrolled at the college. The overall population was 49% Hispanic/Latino, 22% Asian, 13% White, 3% African American/Black, and 11% other races. About 52% of the population identified as female and 47% identified as male. Of those students, 1,139 dropped courses by the second week of the semester. Students who were concurrently enrolled in high school were excluded from the analysis. The average dropout rate for students enrolled at the start of the 2017-18 academic year was 4.5%.
Disaggregating the average dropout rate by race/ethnicity, gender, and age revealed student age as the only characteristic with substantial differences in sub-group drop out rates (See Table 1). Specifically, students under the age of 25 dropped out at a much lower rate than students ages 25 and older (2.95% compared to 7.63%) A third of students enrolled were ages 25 or older. There was not a clear pattern in dropout rates disaggregated by student race/ethnicity or gender. The dropout rate for different racial/ethnic groupings were similar to the average rate of 4.5%, with Black- and White- identifying students dropping out at a slightly higher rate (7.25% and 6.16% respectively). Furthermore, while female students dropped at a marginally higher rate than male (4.83% compared to 3.87%), there was not a substantial difference between the two groups.
|Table 1: Demographics.|
|Count total students||Percent total students||Count dropouts||Percent dropouts||Dropout Rate|
|Ethnicity||American Indian or Alaska Native||49||0%||1||0%||2.04%|
|Black or African American||906||3%||66||6%||7.28%|
|Hispanic / Latino||12917||49%||552||48%||4.27%|
|Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander||41||0%||1||0%||2.44%|
|Two or More Races||594||2%||48||4%||8.08%|
|Unknown / Non-Respondent||2461||9%||20||2%||0.81%|
|Unknown / Non-Respondent||313||1%||14||1%||4.47%|
|25 and older||7994||31%||610||53%||7.63%|
Dropout rates differed substantially for students enrolled full time compared to part-time (see Table 2). That is, part-time students dropped out at a much higher rate than full-time students (5.59% compared to 1.53%). Furthermore, full-time students dropped out at a rate far below the average dropout rate, while part-time students dropped out at a rate higher than the average. There was a much higher percentage of students enrolled part-time compared to full-time (70% compared to 30%). Nearly all dropouts (90%) were part-time students. Differences in dropout rates between students who were new that year and those continuing from a previous year were not present.
|Table 2: Enrollment.|
|Count total students||Percent total students||Count dropouts||Percent dropouts||Dropout Rate|
|Enrollment Status||Full Time||7844||30%||120||10%||1.53%|
Dropout rates did not vary substantially across student cumulative GPA (see Table 3). The average GPA for all enrollments was 2.61 (SD = 1.07) while the average GPA for students who dropped out was 2.69 (SD = 1.01). In fact, it appears students with a GPA range between 3.7 and 4.0 dropped out at a higher rate than students with lower GPA’s. Thus, there is not a clear relationship between student GPA and dropout rates. This suggests that there isn’t an association between academic difficulties and a student’s decision to leave college, as a range of students are dropping out; from high performers to lower level students.
|Table 3: Academic Standing.|
|Count total students||Percent total students||Count dropouts||Percent dropouts||Dropout Rate|
|GPA||A (3.7 – 4.0)||2240||12%||152||19%||6.79%|
|B (2.7 – 3.69)||8518||45%||291||36%||3.42%|
|C (1.7 to 2.69)||5405||29%||231||29%||4.27%|
|D/F (0 to 1.69)||2706||14%||126||16%||4.66%|
Overall, these findings suggest that older students are dropping out at a rate much higher than to younger students. Additionally, part-time students dropped out at a substantially higher rate than full-time students, while the majority of students are enrolled part time. These findings are consistent with previous research that finds older students and part-time students to dropout at higher rates than younger students and full-time students. Other researchers note that older students are more likely to be working, married, and caring for children than their younger peers (Horn and Carroll, 1996; Stratton, et al., 2004). As such, these students are more likely to enroll part-time (Bailey, et al., 2003). Likewise, researchers note that students enrolled part-time are less likely to complete than students enrolled full-time (Adelman, 2005; Attewll, et al., 2012; O’Toole, et al., 2003; Costa, 2014). While I did not find substantial differences in drop-out rates across race/ethnicity, other researchers have noted differences in completion rates by race/ethnicity (Shapiro, et al., 2017; Moore, et al., 2009). It is important to distinguish that the rates provided are only examining if the student dropped out and not whether the student completed. There were not clear patterns of dropout rates across GPA. This suggests that, rather than academic struggles, students are dropping out because of external demands that are more prominent for older students which may force a student to enroll part-time rather than full-time. To investigate this issue further, a qualitative look of why students dropped out is provided.
Coordinating Competing Demands:
The number one reason students dropped out of community college was competing work responsibilities (see Table 4). Interviews revealed that employed students struggled to enroll in courses that complemented their work schedules. As employment often took priority, students attempted to choose classes that fit within their work schedules. Students could benefit from guidance from college staff and faculty in determining how to balance work and school demands.
|What were the reasons you decided not to come back to the college during fall 2017?||Count||Percent (N=50)|
|Unsatisfied with the course/professor||7||14%|
|Couldn’t get into a necessary class||5||10%|
|Missed a deadline||1||2%|
|Another college offered needed class||1||2%|
Unlike most full-time 4-year undergraduates, community college students often have various obligations that can keep them away from school, including childcare needs, work responsibilities, and transportation issues, to name a few. When students were asked about their daily responsibilities while enrolled in the community college, the majority cited work (see Table 5). Of the interviewees who were enrolled part-time, most cited work as the primary reason for enrolling part-time (see Table 6). About 40% of the working students dropped classes due to conflicts with their work schedule.
|What were your main daily responsibilities while you were enrolled at the community college?||Count||Percent (n=50)|
|What were your reasons for enrolling part time?||Count||Percent
|Enrolled at another community college||4||10%|
|Enrolled in a course of interest||3||8%|
Although researchers have noted that working in addition to school can lower a student’s chances of graduating (O’Toole, et al., 2003), employment is often necessary for many students. For example, one student we talked to noted that she started as a full-time student at the college. However, at the start of her second-year, her family was no longer able to support her financially and she could no longer live in their household. She needed to switch to part-time enrollment and obtained a full-time job to support herself. Although often necessary, working in addition to school imparts added challenges on students. Of central importance is coordinating work and school demands.
At the start of each semester, students determine if attending school is feasible. Students face the decision of whether to remain enrolled, drop out, or re-enroll. Employed students attempted to enroll in classes that matched their work availability. However, some students had limited availability to attend classes. For example, one student with a full-time job explained that she attempted to take a class during her lunch break, as it was the only open time in her schedule. After the first week of the semester, she realized that it was infeasible to squeeze the course into her schedule and she dropped it. Similarly, another student did not have a set work schedule. As a result, she realized that it would be too challenging to try and coordinate work and school throughout the semester and decided to drop her classes.
Given their limited availability, students often have fewer class options to choose from. As enrollment numbers continue to increase, many community colleges have noted that they have more students that they can adequately serve (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). As a result, classes frequently fill, leaving some students unable to enroll. Even if a student finds a class that fits their work schedule, the class can be full. About 10% of interviewed students noted that they were unable to enroll in a needed course because it was full. As one student described, most classes offered did not align with her work schedule. She found one class that would fit in an opening in her schedule, but by the time she was able to enroll it was full. The inability to get into a necessary course was especially detrimental for students who needed to fulfill a sequential course required for their major. One student, who works full-time and attends college part-time, commented that she needed to enroll in a sequence of science classes for her major. However, all the required classes were full. Rather than take unnecessary classes, she will remain unenrolled until the classes are offered again.
In attempting to find classes that align with their work schedules, some students comment that they “shop around” for classes at multiple community colleges. For example, a student who was unable to enroll in a necessary course chose to enroll in a similar course at another community college. Although she dropped out of one community college, she continued her education at another.
This study implies that several institutional structures could ease the scheduling challenges that students face. First, students stressed the need for more evening and weekend courses to accommodate their work schedules. Second, students needed assistance in determining a viable course schedule. Most students are making enrollment decisions on their own. For instance, Lou is a part-time Latino student enrolled in the automotive certification program, in addition to working full-time. Thus far, he enrolled in the college three times, but has only completed one semester because of his work schedule. Each time he dropped-out, he did not consult any staff and noted that, “I just go to class” and “I haven’t interacted with any support staff”.
Other students commented that meeting with college staff regarding how to balance multiple demands was helpful. One student noted that she appreciated that a counselor took the time to help her create a course schedule that aligned with her work obligations and parenting responsibilities. Rather than tackling the burden of coordinating course and work schedules on their own, students would benefit from advice from counselors and college staff.
Interviews with community college students revealed that many faced challenges in choosing the necessary courses for their major. Students often made incorrect course decisions that led to prolonged enrollment. Counselors were crucial in providing necessary information to students. However, interviews with dropouts revealed that these students had trouble finding a time to meet. Despite students noting positive experiences with counselors, there were instances when they received contradictory information and incorrect advice.
Julia is an example of a student who had trouble choosing the required courses for her major. Julia is a 31-year-old Latina student who is pursuing a nursing degree with the goal of transferring to a four-year institution. She has full-time job and two children, in addition to taking a couple classes each semester. Julia has been taking classes part-time at the college for the past 8 years, and has earned a total of 85 credits, although only 60 credits are needed for her intended goal of a transfer degree. She has only fulfilled the requirements for an AA, and notes that she needs to take a few additional classes to earn the transfer degree. She was confused about the difference in the requirements for the two degrees and noted that it “seemed like I was just taking a bunch of classes”. Furthermore, tired of taking classes, she petitioned to graduate with an AA and not a transfer degree. However, because she is now technically graduated, she is unable to get the same financial aid resources to complete the few courses needed to obtain a transfer degree. As a result, she is unsure if she will return to school.
As frustrating as Julia’s story is, it demonstrates the informational barriers that students face in choosing coursework and the consequences for choosing incorrectly. Taking incorrect coursework can stall student progress and contribute to students’ decision to leave school. While academic counselors play an important role in conveying course information to students only 80% of students in our sample saw a counselor at any point during their studies.
Such limited counselor visits were often due to difficulties in making an appointment. About 15% of students in our sample noted that it was challenging to find a time to meet. Often, this difficulty arose because of misalignment in student schedules and counselor availability. Jenny, a second-year Asian student described, “I’ve taken so many classes”. Yet she is unsure if she is meeting the needed requirements for her major. Jenny noted that, “I wasn’t sure what I was taking… I really need to see a counselor”. However, it was difficult for her to find a time to meet with counselors as she attends class after working a full-time job. Consequently, Jenny only met a counselor once when she started school two years ago. Adriana is another example of a student who had trouble meeting with counselors. Adriana is a 28-year-old Latina student enrolled at the community college to obtain a nursing degree. In addition to working full-time, she also has a family and manages the household. The college was on her way home from work and she attempted to take evening classes after the workday. Like Jenny, counselors were not available when she was able to meet. As a result, she did not visit a counselor during her time in school.
Another issue was that students only visited a counselor when they first started school. Consequently, students who are enrolled at the college for multiple years can be using outdated information to make decisions or are unaware if requirements for their major change. For example, Cheryl is a third-year student at the college. She must commute one-hour each way to her full-time job, making it difficult to find a time to meet with counselors. As a result, she commented that she is choosing courses based on various worksheets that have been provided to her by counselors in previous years. However, some of the information on the worksheets contradict each other. Given students use of confusing or outdated information to choose coursework, it is likely that some will make incorrect enrollment decisions, as seen in our interviews.
While two-thirds of students found their visit with counselors to be positive, students also commented on less helpful sessions. Students noted receiving contradictory information from different campus offices or counselors. For example, one student commented, she visited a counselor as well as an on-campus transfer center. Sometimes the two places would provide different information. Another student noted that, although she visited the counselors a few times, each time she saw a different counselor. She found that the information provided by different counselors often contradicted each other.
Ultimately, contradictory information leads students to make incorrect course enrollment decisions, which stalls progress. For example, one student noted that a counselor advised her to drop a course, claiming that she would still have the necessary number of units to transfer. However, when she tried to transfer, she was told that she needed additional units, and will now have to wait until the following year. Another counselor informed her that she was provided incorrect information. Stalling student progress through school can lead to additional chances for students to dropout.
As the examples showed, difficulty in meeting with counselors and the use of outdated information or incorrect advice can lead students to make incorrect course enrollment decisions. Interviews with students revealed several institutional structures that could help alleviate these issues. Noting the difficulty in making an appointment with counselors, students commented that additional counselor sessions in the evenings would allow students who worked full-time to receive assistance. Additionally, students valued tools that allowed them to monitor their progress towards completing their degree without needing frequent counselor visits. Specifically, educational plans were a useful way for students to track the sequence of classes needed for their degree. Just over half of students in our sample created an educational plan during their time at the college. However, about 85% of students who did create an educational plan found it helpful in choosing classes. Tools such as these can help students stay on track for their degree.
Rather than visiting a different counselor each session, students found success in making appointments with the same counselor as they better understood their goals and could provide advice on how to reach them. Furthermore, designating a counselor to students make it easier for counselors to create and monitor students’ educational plans. Along the same lines, students found counselors that were familiar with requirements for their degree specifically more helpful. Systems that would encourage all students to use these tactics would benefit them. Additionally, students valued when a counselor proactively checked-in with them throughout the year to provide updates to their specific degree requirements as needed. In addition to better advice, designating counselors to students would facilitate ongoing check-ins.
Last, students who were undecided on their major still needed assistance from counselors in determining a course plan. However, students noted instances where this did not occur. Students commented that counselors were “only helpful if you already knew what you wanted to take”. One student described that the counselor asked what she wanted to take, and when she didn’t know, asked her to come back when she did. Students would benefit from assistance in determining different pathways through college, even if they are undecided in their major. Again, continuity between counselors could also improve the advice that undecided students receive.
Utilizing College Strategies:
In interviews, students reflected on how they were unsure what to do if faced with a barrier to their persistence at the college. In particular, students struggled to identify strategies on how to appropriately respond if they missed an important deadline, were unable to attend a class session, or struggled to enroll in a necessary course because it was full. Researchers have noted community college requires a certain “know-how” or skill set “necessary for navigating and succeeding in a college environment” (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2003). Likewise, not utilizing the appropriate strategy when faced with an obstacle to their continued enrollment ultimately led students to drop out. These findings suggest a need for community colleges to inform students about the resources available as well as how and where to get assistance when needed. Furthermore, rather than putting the burden solely on students, community college faculty and staff could proactively reach out to students if they missed a deadline or if they were absent from class.
First, many students did not seek help if they missed an important deadline. This was an issue for both new and more experienced students. One illustrative example is Samantha, an Asian 38-year-old accounting and finance major. Samatha is a strong student, with close to a 4.0 GPA, and has earned over 90 credits (although only 60 credits are needed to earn her degree objective of an AA). However, at the start of the school year, her father became sick and she had to take care of her family. She missed the financial aid deadline and, if she is unable to sort out this issue, will not be able to enroll in any classes this year. However, she noted that she has not approached anyone for help and is unsure if there is a way she can obtain funding partway through the year. As a result, she has not received any help in resolving this issue. Similarly, one second-year student noted that she applied for a class online and was sent an email to confirm her enrollment. However, she did not check her email in time and was dropped from the course. Rather than consult staff at the college, she “figured there wasn’t anything I could do about it”. Like Samantha, this student assumed that assistance would not be provided to her and therefore did not seek out help. As the examples showed, both students were unaware of the potential assistance that they could have received to resolve their issues. Students needed additional communication about what to do if a deadline is missed and where to go to access help.
Second, students were unsure what to do if they needed to miss a class session. Interviews revealed that students did not contact instructors if they were absent from class. For example, George is a first-year, 32-year-old, Asian student who enrolled full-time at the college. He missed the first week of classes for a work training. Assuming he would be dropped, he withdrew from all classes without consulting any staff. Additionally, community college staff must be more flexible with student absences. Leah, a Latina student pursuing a nursing degree while working full time and caring for her child, described that she was unable to attend the first day of class. She did not communicate with the instructor about missing class and the instructor dropped her from the course. As the interviews show, students need additional information about what to do if they need to miss a class, such as contacting the instructor. Additionally, college staff could adopt additional flexibility to help their students remain enrolled in courses even if they are unable to attend every class session.
Last, students were often unaware of strategies to enroll in a class that was already full. As one student noted, she was unable to get into the science class that she needed for her major. Her friends at the college recommended that she show up to the class anyways and try to add it that way. However, by the time she received this advice, the first week of classes had already passed and it was too late to use the strategy. As this example shows, strategies for enrolling in courses that are already full are not known by all students.
Overall, students needed additional information about what to do if they missed a deadline, were unable to attend a class session, or struggled enroll in a necessary course. As seen in interviews, these types of college strategies are not common knowledge for all students. Rather than seeking assistance, students assumed that there was nothing the college could do to help. Likewise, when asked if there were any additional resources that would allowed them to remain enrolled, 46% of students in our sample assumed that it was a “personal issue” and they “didn’t expect the college to help”. Community colleges could better communicate both the types of strategies that students could utilize if they found themselves in one of these situations as well as the types of assistance the college offers. In addition, the college staff and faculty could proactively engage students who appear to be dealing with one of these obstacles to continued enrollment.
This study suggests the three factors outlined above can influence a student’s decision to drop out. Nonetheless, the study has several limitations we must consider. First, our analysis might have shortcomings. In particular, interviews were not recorded or transcribed for analysis. Variation in interviewers note-taking may influence the data collected. Second, students were interviewed based on their response to the study invitation. Those students who dropped out and did not respond to the email invitation may have a different college experience than those who did. Thus, our sample of interviewed students may be unrepresentative of the total population of students who dropped out. Last, 50 interviews were not enough to allow us to subset data by different student characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, age, or gender to examine whether these factors were associated with student experience. A larger sample would allow for further analysis into potential variation in experiences across these characteristics.
Implications for Practice:
This study sought to understand: 1. Who is dropping out of community college 2. Why are students dropping out and 3. What institutional supports could assist these students in remaining enrolled? As the examples showed, student understanding of how to coordinate competing demands, enroll in the correct coursework for their degree objective, and identify effective college strategies when faced with a barrier can influence student success in college. Across each theme, I show how community college students attempt to overcome these obstacles to enrollment on their own. I found that students assume that the onus is on them to figure out how to navigate college. Not receiving assistance from counselors or school staff eventually led students to dropout. While the examples provided demonstrate some of the serious obstacles community college students face to continued enrollment, interviewees also provided insights into institutional supports that would help mitigate these barriers.
Specifically, community college staff could assist students in five important ways:
- Determining a course schedule that is aligned with work demands. The number one reason why students dropped out was because they were unable to coordinate work and school schedules. As employment takes priority, students will dropout if their class schedule is not compatible with their work schedule. Most students did not receive assistance from counselors or school staff in coordinating these two demands. However, students valued when counselors recognized the importance of their work responsibilities and assisted them in determining a course schedule that was compatible with their external demands. Community colleges could ensure that more students receive this type of assistance.
- Extending counselor availability to the evenings. Students had trouble choosing the correct sequence of coursework to make progress towards their intended degree. Counselors play a crucial role in conveying important course information to students. Students who worked full-time struggled to find a time to meet with counselors because they were not available in the evenings. Extending counselor availability would allow these students to receive counselor assistance in choosing coursework for their degree.
- Reaching out to students regularly. Interviews revealed that students struggled to make frequent in-person visits to the counseling office. Additionally, students were unsure how and where to ask for assistance when needed. Rather than putting the burden on students, developing systems where counselors or school staff regularly reach out to students could help mitigate the informational barriers students face. Support staff could reach out to students to determine if they need assistance choosing a course schedule, filing for financial aid, or coordinating competing demands, to name a few. Furthermore, community college staff and faculty could reach out to students if they missed a deadline or were absent from class.
- Providing counselors with more information to better advice students. When a student did make multiple visits to the counseling office, students rarely saw the same counselor. Counselors are relying on a student’s description of their educational goals within the short session to provide advice. As a result, students often received different information during each counselor visit or unhelpful advice. One solution would be to designate counselors to students, which would allow counselors to build a relationship with students to provide better advice on how to reach their goals as well as provide on-going check-ins.
- Communicating effective strategies to handle barriers to persistence. Students were often unaware of what to do if something went wrong during their time in community college, such as if they missed an important deadline or if a necessary course was full. Interviews revealed that when faced with a barrier, many students did not seek out assistance. Community colleges could communicate strategies for what to do if a student finds themselves in one of these situations and the types of resources that the college offers to assist them.
Although the issue of student retention has been highly discussed, there is much to be gained by examining the experiences of students who dropped out. This paper described the experiences of students who dropped out of one community college. I found that students had trouble coordinating competing demands, choosing coursework, and utilizing college strategies. I presented evidence suggesting that institutional assistance would mitigate these barriers to help students remain enrolled. Findings from this study can help other community colleges grappling with the issue of student retention by detailing the experiences of students who have dropped out and providing student suggestions for additional resources that would have allowed them to remain enrolled. In doing so, community colleges can use findings from these interviews to further develop services aimed to improve student retention.
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 Pseudonyms used to protect the identity of study participants.