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All posts by Anne Marie Bonner
July 18, 2016
Jonathan Lai, Philadelphia Inquirer
At past college freshman summer orientations, Rowan College at Burlington County administrators noticed that a surprising group of people kept showing up: parents.
They were able to learn the ins and outs of the school, but it was supposed to be studentorientation.
“That was good in terms of the student having the support network right there with them,” said Cathy Briggs, the Burlington County community college’s dean of student success. “What it cut into was the students’ ability to . . . make connections with other students, because they were sitting with their parents.”
Last year, the college began to test separate gatherings, largely presenting the same information to parents as to students. About three dozen people attended this year’s first event, held last week on the school’s main Mount Laurel campus.
Reaching out to parents is important, Briggs said, because family often forms a first line of support for students. Enlisting family can help a student get to the finish line.
“Now their support system is well-informed,” Briggs said, citing credit hours and study time as examples: Without the orientation, some parents may not understand how much time students need to dedicate to their courses.
“Without that information, the parent doesn’t have the context to know what the expectations are,” she said.
Such programs can particularly benefit first-generation college students, who are particularly at risk of leaving college and make up a sizable portion of community college enrollment. Parents who did not attend college may not understand the student’s experience and challenges.
“You do have tons of students who don’t continue, drop out during or at the end of their first year, and colleges are trying all sorts of things to try to improve continuation rates,” said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “This could be another aspect of that – it’s probably an underutilized avenue.”
That’s why Brian Ivers Sr. attended RCBC’s parent event for his son, Brian Jr.
“I wanted to know what we could do to help Junior,” said the elder Ivers, who did not attend college.
Ivers Sr. particularly wanted to learn more about how students can transfer to four-year colleges and how to help his son through that process.Now armed with that information, Ivers said he plans to work with his son when the time comes.
“We’re here,” he said. “We’ll be there for him all the way through it.”
One benefit of separate parent and student events, several college administrators said, is that parents often have a different focus from students. Parents, for example, generally have more questions about financial aid and campus safety than students do.
“Parents typically have a lot more questions than the students do,” said James N. Canonica, the dean of students at Camden County College, which is now in its fourth year offering parent orientation programs to complement its student sessions.
Camden County College, like RCBC and other schools, largely presents the same types of information to parents and students, Canonica said.
At Rowan College at Gloucester County, “we kind of educate the parent right along with the student,” said Audreen Pittman, the community college’s Educational Opportunity Fund director.
The school doesn’t currently offer a parent-specific program, Pittman said, but she hopes to develop one this school year. Now, students who approach the EOF student support program often arrive with parents in tow.
Because Educational Opportunity Fund programs target first-generation students, Pittman said, parental education becomes an important way to help students.
“The more educated a parent is, the better our processes go,” she said. “We want to educate the parents, because that helps us greatly.”
One in four college freshmen won’t return this fall. Here’s how schools are trying to bring them back.
July 5, 2016
After his freshman year of college in South Carolina, Ronald Torres cried the whole way back to Camden.
“I was like, man, I can’t believe this is happening to me,” the 20-year-old said.
After two semesters spent worrying about his ill grandmother, distracting him from studies, Torres had also lost some of his financial aid, leaving him unable to return to South Carolina State University after finishing freshman year in 2015.
“It’s not so straightforward as some people try to put it,” Torres said. Two weeks after he returned to Camden, Torres said, his grandmother had a heart attack. He decided to stay and take care of her.
With that decision, Torres became one of millions of freshmen across the country each year who do not return to their colleges as sophomores. Nationwide, about 1 in 4 freshmen at public colleges do not return to campus – a number that the schools hope to shrink.
Not all students leave college altogether, of course; many transfer to community colleges or to other four-year schools.
Torres said he hopes to eventually return to college, probably starting with classes at community college and finishing at a local four-year school.
Some students leave because they can’t pay anymore; others struggle with the coursework, the pace of classes, or the sudden freedom and flexibility.
“Many students have a difficult time adjusting to collegiate life,” said Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University.
“There needs to be support services,” he said. “You can be really strong in one aspect of your education and not as strong at another, but at the collegiate level they all count.”
Colleges have long had an array of student support services, including tutoring and academic advising. In recent years, those services have been expanded, driven in part by a growing emphasis on driving down student costs.
“Institutions are becoming much more proactive and trying to identify the students that are at risk of leaving,” said Michele O’Connor, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies at Temple University. “They’re reaching out to them and trying to get them to respond.”
In New Jersey, the three schools with the lowest 2014 to 2015 retention rates – Kean, New Jersey City, and William Paterson Universities – had about one in four freshmen not return as sophomores.
The retention rates at the 14 schools in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education ranged from 44.1 percent at Cheyney University to 87.9 percent at West Chester University. The system total was 78.1 percent.
“Even though we are proud of this number that we are talking about, we believe there is always room for improvement,” said Francis Atuahene, who heads student success programs at West Chester.
Atuahene attributed much of the university’s success to its Early Alert Program, which flags students who are struggling during the semester. Faculty members notify advisers and support staff, who reach out to students and offer tutoring, academic skills training, and other help as necessary.
This fall, West Chester is rolling out a program that identifies at-risk incoming freshmen and gives them workshops similar to the ones in its alert program: note-taking, study skills, time management.
“We’re going to make sure that we’re not going to wait until you have a problem,” Atuahene said. “We’re going to make sure we teach you the right things that you have to do so that you don’t have a problem.”
Part of the difficulty of raising retention rates is the interconnectedness of every part of the college experience, said Rory McElwee, Rowan University’s associate vice president for student retention.
Rowan, which had a 2014-15 retention rate of 86.3 percent, has implemented a student information system that tracks academic progress and connects students, faculty, and advisers; increased its full-time professional advising staffing (it is adding five this summer to the current 29); and worked to link parts of the university so staff communicate more often.
“It’s pretty difficult to get significant jumps in retention overnight,” McElwee said, “but when you’re putting a number of different pieces in place, and you’re making those across the campus, and you’re making them based on data, that’s where we’ve been able to increase our rates.”
Careful use of data showed administrators at William Paterson University, which has a retention rate of 74.6 percent, that the biggest issue was financial, said Warren Sandmann, the provost.
If students can’t afford to be in college, then of course they don’t return. But even when students reported academic problems, Sandmann said, the underlying issue often turned out to be money.
“Our students do tend to work a lot, and if you’re working a lot, you are probably not going to school on a full-time basis,” he said. “Or if you are, you’re probably not giving the same amount of attention to your schoolwork as you are to everything else you’re doing.”
To address that, William Paterson began offering “student success scholarships” that give students $1,000 each year they return with a 3.0 grade-point average and an on-track number of credits.
This fall, the university is using the system that Rowan has been using, designed to allow students to better track progress with clear milestones and for staff to identify pending trouble for students.
At Millersville University, in Lancaster County, new housing on the south side of campus will help create a sense of community and home that will hopefully encourage more students to return, said Brian Hazlett, its vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.
“We want to see the students succeed; we want to see them make a home here,” said Hazlett, whose university has a 76.5 percent retention rate.
None of the administrators said they were satisfied with their rates, eyeing ever-higher numbers. Kesselman said that improving Stockton’s 86.6 percent retention rate will require drilling down into ever-smaller issues, slowly ticking that number higher.
O’Connor said she’s hoping to improve on Temple’s 89.9 percent retention rate by tweaking existing programs and, soon, improving the at-risk alert system so it can provide warnings of struggling students faster.
New Jersey City University, which had a 2014-15 retention rate of 74.0 percent, is guaranteeing financial aid to students to cover any gap between the cost of college and state and federal aid.
The university has also begun beefing up its advising systems, revising its scheduling to be more flexible for students, and implementing a student data system, said Sue Henderson, its president.
Henderson said she reminds her staff that the university is meant to serve students, whatever their needs.
“You know every day that if you check into a hotel that they have done a lot of research on what is the most efficient and effective way to make you happy while you’re there,” she said. “That’s what we need to be doing.”
June 13, 2016
Lauren Feiner, Staff Writer
FOR THE PAST three years, Emma Morando-Young and Anthony Young’s Philadelphia home has been doubling as a college dorm.
The dining room table is strewn with books – the result of too many 3 a.m. homework sessions – rather than forks and knives.
On Monday, some 13 years into their marriage, after raising kids and pursuing careers, the Youngs will walk down another aisle – to get college diplomas at the same time. The couple will graduate from Peirce College, a Center City school focused on adult learners. Emma, 42, will receive her bachelor’s degree in integrated leadership while her husband, 49, will receive his associate’s degree in criminal justice.
And the Youngs aren’t stopping there. Next year, Young and his 25-year-old stepdaughter both expect to receive their bachelor’s degrees.
The story of the married adult learner is one of shifting schedules, canceling babysitters, lunchtime homework, and family study sessions.
It’s a life that Mariya Georgieva, 34, and Stefan Georgiev, 42, know well. The couple will also be graduating Monday, with their 9-month-old son, George, sitting on their laps and with her sister also in the audience.
After working in Peirce’s information technology department, Stefan will graduate with a master of science in organizational leadership & management. Mariya will receive her bachelor of science in integrated leadership – the degree she never got to finish after moving from Bulgaria during an exchange program in college.
The couple credits Peirce Fit, a program that allows students to alternate between online and in-person classes at their convenience, with providing them the flexibility to stay in school. When their babysitter canceled just before a class, for example, Mariya was able to stay home with her child and take the session online, rather than fall behind.
The couple said studying leadership in college made them better parents at home.
With a newborn to care for, Mariya said there were times she thought she should just take a break from school. But her partner encouraged her to keep going. “I think that is true leadership, to not let someone or your spouse give up,” she said.
Cathy Littlefield, an associate professor of Organizational Leadership and Management at Peirce who has taught both Stefan and Mariya, recalled a time where she had a videoconference with Mariya while Stefan was taking care of the baby in the background. Littlefield said their marriage created a support system that helped in the classroom.
“They were able to empathize with each other so they understood what it meant to have to write a paper and have a deadline,” Littlefield said.
For the Youngs, going to school as a family also meant more empathy for their 15-year-old son, Kyron. “We understand [his problems] completely,” Emma said. “We wish we didn’t have to do our homework either.”
And oh, how much homework there is.
Stefan was doing homework the night before his wedding. Emma and Anthony’s relatives complain that when they come to visit they bring their laptops to do work. For these hardworking couples, it’s just become a part of what they do.
“We say we don’t have time, but think about it, we make time for everything else we want to do,” Emma said.
Anthony had put off his education after more than 20 years in the military, put off by the idea of being the “old guy” in the classroom.
“It kind of delayed me, but then I figured I better do it now before I get any older,” he said, laughing.
The Youngs and Georgievs offered words of encouragement for other potential adult learners to take the leap back into school. Despite the lack of sleep and busy hours, both say it has improved their relationships with each other and made them into better examples for their kids.
“We always had fun, we always laughed together,” Emma said, “but now we have this intellectual connection.”
May 23, 2016
Jonathan Lai, Staff Writer
As financial pressures mount on community colleges, some schools have begun to openly compete: crossing county lines and marketing to a wider pool of students.
Driving increased competition are several long-term factors: fewer high school graduates, flat or falling enrollment, and reduction in state funding.
“It’s forcing everyone to find ways to do what they’ve traditionally done, differently,” said Paul Drayton, the president of Rowan College at Burlington County.
It’s unclear how increased competition could eventually shift the traditional geographic orientation of New Jersey’s community college system, which now has 19 community colleges serving the 21 counties.
“Does 19 become 17, if some of these counties were to go together?” asked Frederick Keating, the president of Rowan College at Gloucester County. “I think, in time, it becomes inevitable, because of the collapsing of the sector quantitatively – and revenue streams are choking off.”
Another possibility is that the schools begin to specialize, offering programs other schools do not have.
Drayton’s school is marketing its online programs and touting its guaranteed transfer admission to Rowan University.
To avoid competition with each other, the two Rowan College schools have agreed to target different counties, with the Gloucester County school focused on eight counties in South Jersey while the Burlington County school takes Burlington, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties and Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
Both schools market to Philadelphia students; one RCBC ad compares the school’s tuition to that of the Community College of Philadelphia.
“For us, this is a fundamental change in how this college operates and how we handle our marketing and branding. There’s no going back for us,” Drayton said.
Crossing geographic lines is creating competition more like four-year schools than community colleges, both Drayton and Keating said.
“The relationship with Rowan University has given us . . . not only a choice . . . but an obligation or even a demand to regionalize,” Keating said. “Because what we have, other counties don’t have.”
Keating noted that the share of colleges’ revenue coming from students has increased over time, which has contributed to higher tuition and fees.
But might rising costs, meant to offset decreasing government aid, end up backfiring by excluding some students, and thus hurting enrollment?
That’s the concern at Camden County College, where the board has fixed tuition and mandatory fees for the second consecutive year. Don Borden, the college’s president, said that while trying to be cognizant of students’ financial needs, his school also is simply trying to compete with neighboring schools.
“The students come from all around us, so we need to keep competitive with the other colleges that are around us,” said Helen Antonakakis, who heads Camden County College’s finance and planning.
Camden County College’s tuition and fees next year will cost $144 per credit for county residents.
That still remains higher than Rowan College at Gloucester County, which is raising its per-credit cost $2, to $139.50, and Rowan College at Burlington County, which is freezing its per-credit cost at $135.50.
The colleges still charge different rates to in-county, out-of-county, out-of-state, and international students, but those lines have become blurred as colleges offer a variety of waivers.
Jose Robles, 25, who graduated this month from Rowan College at Burlington County with an accounting degree, took classes at the Mount Laurel campus in part because it was closer to his Camden County home in Pennsauken.
Robles used to attend Camden County College but left to serve in the Army. When he returned, he decided the drive to Mount Laurel would be easier than the commute to Blackwood.
RCBC would also be cheaper: The school charged him in-county tuition because he is a veteran.
“It adds up in the end, and overall RCBC makes it much more affordable,” Robles said.
History has shown students to be very savvy in comparing schools to find the best option, said Melinda Karp, assistant director at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“In a densely populated area like New Jersey, it doesn’t surprise me that keeping a small catchment area is not as easy,” Karp said.
The result of these pressures in the long-term is unclear; Larry Nespoli, the president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, demurred when pressed about the future.
“We only have 19 community colleges, for crying out loud. We’re not blind to the new challenges ahead of us – . . . we read about hospitals merging every day, it seems – but we already have a regional community college system. It happens to be by counties,” he said.
“Five years from now, might we have other bi-county colleges? Who the hell knows?” he said.
Whatever happens, he said, the schools are all facing tough times and working on solutions: “We’re looking at the new normal and trying to figure it out.”