It’s hard to believe that the Student Success Task Force (SSTF) Recommendations were adopted by the Board of Governors less than two years ago, especially given the many changes that colleges have made, or will soon be making, with respect to various aspects of the functioning of their matriculation and counseling programs (see https://www.asccc.org/sites/default/files/SSTF_Final_Report_1-17-12.pdf for more information). As there are ways to “tweak” operations within the student services realm by centrally changing rules, some viewed this as the “low-hanging fruit” with respect to implementing numerous elements of the SSTF recommendations. But none of these changes can truly be effective without corresponding changes to instructional programs and the campus culture. Many of the instructional changes must happen at the level of the individual classroom, but others are at the curricular level. Most importantly, these efforts must be coordinated and involve student services and instruction, as one without the other will not achieve the broader goal of significantly impacting student success. Furthermore, focusing solely on success in basic skills courses without also implementing changes across the curriculum will not yield the outcomes that California needs. As faculty, curricular matters fall under our purview, and we must act responsibly and identify and address where our instructional practices need to change. Considering the need for far-reaching and integrated changes, what should your local student success agenda focus on? What aspects of the SSTF recommendations do the faculty need to take ownership of and start addressing today? What recommendations can be made explicitly to faculty at the local level to consider and act on?
Long before the SSTF was convened, the ASCCC had already been thinking about not only student success, but also about the integrity of our degrees. In fact, the two efforts were inextricably linked when the body opted to raise graduation requirements for our degrees and the Basic Skills Initiative came into existence. Shortly thereafter, the ASCCC began the long process of changing Title 5 regulations to simplify local processes for the implementation of prerequisites. However, we are still not fully committed to taking the steps necessary to compel students to engage in the course-taking patterns that will serve them best. This is absolutely critical—we can only make significant advances in student success if we re-think our view of access and fundamentally change our culture and attitudes. As an example, we need to ensure that a prerequisite is not an “access-barrier”, but rather a “success-facilitator”. We also have to put students first when developing schedules, as opposed to only considering how many courses and what we want to teach. It is critical that we consider past enrollment patterns when planning schedules, but we also need to develop more sophisticated approaches to ensuring that our selection of offerings is appropriate and, ideally, incentivizes effective course-taking patterns. We need to take steps locally to implement the aspects of the SSTF recommendations that simply cannot be effectively mandated centrally (e.g., Recommendation 4.1: Highest priority for course offerings shall be given to credit and noncredit courses that advance students’ academic progress in the areas of basic skills, ESL, CTE, degree and certificate attainment, and transfer, in the context of labor market and economic development needs of the community). If we want to continue to enjoy the local autonomy that we so greatly value, we must be certain to make strides towards the goals adopted by our Board of Governors. We can begin this through some specific areas tied to the SSTF recommendations:
1. Implement prerequisites where appropriate, engaging in the necessary dialogue and coordination to ensure course availability.
Prerequisites can provide a means of sequencing student course-taking behaviors that are consistent with Recommendation 3.4 of the SSTF (Community colleges will require students to begin addressing basic skills needs in their first year and will provide resources and options for them to attain the competencies needed to succeed in college-level work as part of their education plan.) without implementing a new rule or policy. This could be accomplished through a process of phasing in prerequisites, possibly introducing a new prerequisite by first naming it as a co-requisite or prerequisite and using learning communities as a means of improving the overall student experience. Offering students pairs or packages of courses can incentivize students to take more units—moving towards the ideal of full-time enrollment that some envision (Recommendation 3.3: Community Colleges will provide students the opportunity to consider the benefits of full-time enrollment.). This is not meant to suggest that all students should be loading up on units, but rather to implement structures to promote such course-taking patterns where student’s lives and resources make it possible. It is highly likely that sacrifices on the part of faculty in these areas will be necessary as we strive to adjust scheduling and course-taking to ensure that students are adequately prepared for all courses.
2. Engage in a college-wide communication effort to promote awareness of critical deadlines and recent policy changes.
A greater challenge will be in fully implementing changes in classroom practices. As a consequence of changes with respect to withdrawal limits and dates (due to Title 5 changes that preceded the convening of the SSTF), it is critical that classroom faculty are not only aware of the policies and deadlines, but that they structure (or restructure) their teaching to facilitate informed decision-making by students. Is the last date to drop without a W clearly stated in your syllabus? Will your students have some sense of whether or not they will succeed in your course by that deadline? We need to incorporate such practices into our classrooms and advise students to make the choices that are best for them. Faculty need to identify and encourage effective practices related to ensuring that students have the necessary feedback to assess their own chances of success prior to critical deadlines. Efforts to ensure that students understand changes to enrollment priorities, repetition, and repeatability are also necessary. In order to prevent these changes from having devastating negative consequences for our students, we must work to ensure that all students and colleagues are well-informed.
While we do not all teach basic skills courses, we all teach students who have had or who have basic skills needs. Having students master the skills necessary to succeed is something that is of interest to all teaching faculty. While we are generally cognizant of the academic needs of our students, we may be less mindful of their need for guidance. While faculty groups were amongst the first to note that some students only need us for one class and should not be counted as a failure by arbitrary completion metrics, or should be counted in a manner that respects their limited goal, these groups were also quick to reject the concept of self-service Amazon-style approaches to student advising. Realistically, we know that we have some students who know exactly what they want and need, some who think they know what they want and need, and others who have no idea with respect to their wants and needs. While we need not worry about the first group, we should be worried about the group in the middle. The ill-informed student who thinks that he or she has a workable plan is the student we need to be most concerned about. We need to take steps to increase the connection between student services and instruction, with instructional faculty facilitating student access to student services and/or providing students with an opportunity to identify that they are in need of support services. Everyone on campus should have some basic understanding of all the services available to students—or at least be knowledgeable about where to find such information.
3. Develop structures that facilitate ongoing dialogue between student services and instruction.
It is crucial that faculty identify how to support one another and establish structures that encourage collaboration. What is currently being done on your campus to bridge the divide between instruction and student services? Are there opportunities for teaching faculty and counseling faculty to discuss how best to work together to address student needs? If there are not opportunities, how can faculty initiate these opportunities?
It is my sincere hope that faculty across the state are mindful of the SSTF recommendations and that they are part of the discussion as colleges implement their own local student success efforts. The idea of centralized efforts to modify how we teach is terrifying to contemplate, as is the idea of an external entity dictating our schedules and other elements of college life. We need to make a concerted effort of doing better by our students. While we have always been concerned about student success at an individual level, it is time that we take this concern to a new level and strive to implement college-wide changes in practices and culture with the ultimate goal of increasing success for all of our students.