The academic roadmap at the Community College of Aurora doesn’t always follow a straight line.
That’s according to Betsy Oudenhoven, the school’s vice president of student affairs, who helped implement a new mandatory registration program earlier this summer. Starting in April, the school required that all incoming students with no previous college experience take part in a three-hour registration class, a seminar that touches on everything from technology to graduation requirements. After July, the session will shorten in length with a greater number of incoming student, but the intent behind the requirement will remain the same, Oudenhoven said.
“One of the reasons what we decided to do it is that community college students often come late in the game,” Oudenhoven said. “We’re going to see a lot of students come late in the summer. Our advisors were trying to explain all of this information student by student. We had long lines, our advisors were having challenges getting through all of the information.”
In detailing the new requirement, Oudenhoven was quick to point to the differences between the community college’s academic model and the choices available at four-year institutions. In the traditional college setting, she says, the ultimate goal is a bachelor’s degree, an end result that’s common for students in all disciplines and majors. Even students looking to go on to earn a master’s or Ph.D. have to take care of the four-year degree first.
“Community colleges are pretty complicated,” Oudenhoven said, pointing to the contrast at CCA, where students can prepare to transfer to a four-year school, earn an associate degree or a technical certificate. “It can be pretty confusing if you don’t have a context.”
That confusion can be a major factor at a school with two campuses, an enrollment of more than 7,600 students from more than 100 countries. Between the classes available at the school’s CentreTech campus in Aurora and its satellite site in Lowry, many full-time and part-time students get lost in the mix. Data from 2010 showed that the school’s retention rate was 51 percent for full-time students and 39 percent for part-time students.
“This is a big push nationally and in Colorado to get students to degree completion. It’s pretty challenging with the students that we get,” Oudenhoven said. “Certainly, we want to have strong enrollment, but that’s only half the picture. We want (students) to know right up front – this is a welcoming institution, we want them to be successful. Giving them more information up front, absolutely helps on the retention end of the equation.”
The three-hour session includes information on student life at the school, academic support services, advising and registration. In the first three months of the program, the sessions had a capacity for about 1,500 new full-time and part-time students.
Oudenhoven stressed that the content for the sessions came directly from student input garnered through surveys and first-person feedback.
“Community college is more affordable, but it’s still a significant financial investment for our students. We surveyed our current students last year and said, ‘If we were doing this when you were coming in, what would you have wanted to know?’” Oudenhoven said, adding that common responses were, “‘Help us understand the technology, explain how to register, give us an opportunity to see an advisor.’ We incorporated all of that into this 3-hour session.
“It’s really comprehensive,” Oudenhoven added.
She also added that the structure of the sessions drew on input from the college’s Student Life staff, including basic information about clubs, student government and other extra-curricular activities.
“The selling point is it was going to make our lives easier” said Rene Simard, director of advising, in a release from the college. “It’s going to make our students more prepared and more responsible for their goals. It’s great. It’ll probably take a semester to see and feel the benefits of that. But it wasn’t a hard sell at all.”
Mandatory orientation sessions are a common feature at four-year institutions. The system was also in place at Joliet Junior College and the College of Lake County, schools where Oudenhoven worked before landing at CCA in 2011.
“Four-year colleges and universities have been doing it for years. We had to require it for our part-time students as well as our full-time students. Seventy-five percent of our students are part-time,” Oudenhoven said. “We are pretty confident that the program can connect them to us, connect them to each other. It’s the engagement piece that really matters. In the past, when it was optional, it was pretty much our Student Life folks who delivered this information. I think we’re at a point now where the whole college sees the value of doing it.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-449-9707