Discovering Hidden Barriers to Community College Enrollment and Success

October 24, 2016

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By David Bevevino

When students apply to a community college, they expect enrollment to be a clear, orderly process. Unfortunately, for far too many students, it feels more like a maze, full of unknown steps, unfamiliar terminology and unexpected delays. Across the Education Advisory Board’s (EAB) research on more than 150 community colleges in the United States, the average institution fails to convert roughly half of their applicants into enrolled students by the first day of the fall semester. Still more students leave during the first semester as they struggle to balance academics with work, family and personal responsibilities.

Though student success reforms often focus on retaining enrolled students, more colleges are investigating how to change the onboarding process because of the critical decisions students make during this time. Hidden delays can be as simple as having to wait up to seven days to get a student ID number that permits them to proceed to the enrollment process. Especially for in-person applicants, this delay forces students to rearrange busy work, family or personal schedules. Other challenges are more complex, like navigating financial aid verification or choosing the right academic program. All of these decisions have downstream impacts that affect whether a student will persist or step away from their education.

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Few colleges provide students with clear guides for navigating the process from application to enrollment. At EAB, student focus groups, interviews and secret shopping exercises revealed that students received conflicting information from multiple sources, often traveling back and forth among several offices. This frustration leads many students to abandon enrollment, especially if they apply just before classes begin.

After analyzing their application and enrollment data in 2014-15, Nashua Community College (NH) discovered a 42 percent first-year attrition rate. When Nashua leaders evaluated their enrollment process with EAB, they determined that many students not only waited up to a week for their student ID, but they also received no communication about its status while they waited. In addition, EAB’s step-by-step analysis revealed that students struggled to find classes that fit their work schedules, especially those students looking for science courses. Finally, Nashua determined that it had not targeted advising resources to developmental education students who require additional support as they navigate academic, financial and other decisions.

Nashua subsequently made several important changes. First, they collocated critical student services like student affairs, financial services and the registrar so that students could easily navigate the campus. They also reduced the time to process applications from seven days down to one. And they increased its online course offerings to help students with difficult schedules, and redeployed advisors to spend more time with students placing into two or more levels of developmental education. As a result, Nashua increased online course enrollment by more than 87 percent and measured a four percent increase in developmental student retention over the national average.

These reforms set Nashua Community College students on a better path to success, even before their first day of class. By evaluating student onboarding processes, more colleges can identify hidden barriers to access and success. The result will be a more positive student experience, larger enrollment and better retention rates.

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