Thursday, April 17, 2014

Warm Blankets in 2-Year Programs

The New York Times article What Makes a Positive College Experience? gives a few of Dr. Daniel F. Chambliss's answers to some questions about how to make college a positive experience. The short story is that what really matters comes down to one element: PEOPLE.

He suggests things like living in a dorm your freshman year, joining a club or sport, and signing up for classes based on the teacher rather than the content. These are all wonderful ideas if you're a traditional student attending a 4-year university. In fact, as a graduate of a 4-year university, I can attest to the difference doing all of these things can have. 

But what if you attend a community/technical college, and the campus doesn't offer residency? Or you attend as an adult and don't need residency? Or your small 2-year program just doesn't allow enough semesters to get to know that many teachers? Or your college's student body can't support many - if any - clubs or sports to join? Or you work almost full-time to pay for school, have a family at home, or your class schedule is so tight that you simply don't have the time to participate in anything? 

My guess is that this is what hurts a lot of college retention and completion numbers. If "What really matters in college is who meets whom, and when", it should come at no surprise that students have a hard time succeeding when we try to get around this. 

Dr. Chambliss speaks about a study done concerning how patients in a hospital reported a better experience if they were offered a warm blanket while waiting for surgery. He then talks about the "warm blankets" colleges could offer, in the context of a university. For example, he says, "Students who had a single dinner at a professor’s house were significantly more likely to say they would choose the college again." 

What kinds of "warm blankets" can a 2-year college offer? The most promising I've seen is intense advising and mentoring, which refers back to the "who" suggestion - a personal connection. The difference is that these services almost need to be mandates for 2-year students. In universities, the common student characteristics lend well to joining clubs and attending social events; those characteristics are significantly different from that of the typical 2-year student. For example, technical students are more likely to identify themselves as an "employee who studies" than a "student who works" (Hirschy, Bremer, & Castellano, 2011). Two-year students might need to formally schedule advising meetings and mentoring sessions into their day to account for when to start their jobs, what time to pick up their kids from day care, etc. What's more, the nature of attending a university full-time blends nicely with these suggestions, whereas the myriad components of the life circumstances surrounding the typical two-year student often complicates things.  

But the message is the same - "what really matters in college is who meets whom, and when." Two-year programs should sincerely look at how to adapt this for their students' needs. 

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