How can community partners design personal supports that ensure underserved students adjust well to college and are more likely to succeed?

February 2016

Colleges play a critical role in providing access to career advancement through a postsecondary credential for a diverse spectrum of learners. These learners often face significant academic, financial, and logistical barriers that may constrain persistence to completion. Competing responsibilities, financial constraints, and other challenges may compel students to stop out for a semester or longer. Failing to return can leave students saddled with college debt while still lacking the credential that could otherwise help them advance.

Students arrive on campus at varying stages of preparedness for college-level work. Academic pathways that allow students to quickly resolve deficiencies and move on to the next level can help students stay engaged, progress to completion, and save time and money. Incoming students benefit from a campuswide focus on quickly orienting them to campus, integrating them into campus life, and connecting them to faculty mentors in their chosen discipline.

More broadly, postsecondary partnerships with “upstream” (e.g., school districts) and “downstream” (e.g., employers) stakeholders can help provide holistic support for students before, during, and after college—from presearch coaching and advising to internships, job shadowing, and career skill development. These community partnerships are essential to intervention strategies intended to boost postsecondary completion for all students. Below are a few examples of student support programs and courses that advance a persistence and completion agenda through targeted interventions and partnership building.

First-Year Success Programs as an Intervention in Support of Equity and Inclusion: Does your institution want to reimagine how it welcomes, integrates, and supports incoming students as a strategy to support broader equity and inclusion goals? Initiatives aimed at helping incoming students adjust and get connected to campus life can also advance institutional equity and inclusion goals. Consider programs that specifically target student populations (e.g., students from low-income households, first-generation students) that may face additional barriers to persistence and completion.

Convocation: How can your institution celebrate entry for incoming students in a way that helps them feel involved in campus life and excited for the challenges ahead? Convocation exercises and other welcome rituals for new students—a common feature at traditional, four-year institutions—may be even more critical for students from underserved communities. Convocation can be a powerful way for institutions to inspire new students to connect and engage.

Success Seminars: Does your institution want to offer courses to students that introduce student support services, academic skill building, and budgeting, while also helping reduce their time to degree? Credit-bearing courses can help students acquire the academic, career planning, and budgeting skills that position them for success in college right from the start. Such courses also provide additional opportunities to connect students to critical college support people and services (e.g., writing centers, career development centers).

Intensive Bridge Courses: Does your institution want to offer short-term, intensive Bridge courses that can help students both address academic deficiencies and quickly progress? Many students test at the high end of a range of English or math proficiency while still not quite crossing the threshold to the next level. Two-week, intensive Bridge courses can quickly prepare some students to move to college-level English or math without requiring an entire semester of remedial coursework. These pathways allow students to make quick progress on their academic plan, saving them time and money.

Mentoring and Coaching: Does your institution want to seek community partners to support student success through mentoring and coaching programs? Research suggests that mentoring can have a significant impact on student engagement, integration, and persistence. Consider developing or leveraging relationships with community partners (e.g., employers, civic and professional organizations) to identify prospective mentors. Mentorship programs should be responsive to institutional characteristics and demographics. Adult students will likely have very different needs and expectations than traditionally aged students will. Community college students’ timelines will differ from that of students enrolled in four-year programs.

This chapter features an interview with the vice president for access and completion at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), who describes her institution’s First-Year Experience (FYE)—an intervention strategy intended to increase completion rates. We include a student workbook developed by Tri-C faculty and administrators for use in a credit-bearing First-Year Success seminar—a component of the FYE initiative. An FAQ document (designed for a student audience) also identifies and explains the FYE program goals and describes its five components. We also include a brief that summarizes Tri-C’s strategic plan. This chapter ends with a list of additional resources you can use to find more information about designing programming to promote student success.

Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland, Ohio: A Campuswide Commitment to Helping All First-Year Students Thrive, Progress, and Complete

  • Dr. Karen Miller, Vice President for Access and Completion, Cuyahoga Community College

IHEP spoke with Dr. Karen Miller from Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) to learn about the institution’s First-Year Experience (FYE) program—a comprehensive suite of programs, events, and courses designed to positively impact completion rates for new students. Miller recalls how Tri-C faculty, administrators, and students collectively shaped development of FYE, describes FYE’s specific components, and explains the rationale for making student participation mandatory. The interview suggests a promising strategy for getting students off to a great start, with completion as their ultimate goal.


IHEP: What is the FYE program, and why did it develop?

FYE is the umbrella title we’ve given to several interrelated programs that are required for all new students at Tri-C. These programs have been designed to help new students start their college career on the right path. The four major goals of FYE are to help students connect, engage, plan, and succeed. Students navigate a series of programs and activities that are customized to each person’s needs and designed to help them succeed.

A critical catalyst for FYE was the arrival of our new president (Dr. Alex Johnson) in summer 2013. Dr. Johnson had been very involved in the national conversation on the importance of completion in the community college sector. Even as we’d already been active on this front, he really changed the culture and the tone at Tri-C. He took every opportunity to raise the issue—in small gatherings, at town hall meetings on campus, and at convocation. Everyone quickly got the message that this was going to be a critical area of focus for us. He created the right environment for us to advance the systemic change necessary to get the results we needed.

State officials were also very interested in completion. They asked us to put together a plan for increasing completion levels. We knew we needed to move the needle on this, and that it likely meant shifting people and fiscal resources around to support the work we knew was important.

IHEP: Does Tri-C focus on supporting specific student populations?

Well, we’ve been focused on some populations for quite a while. For instance, students who come to us at a developmental level have been a population of concern for some time. When we first started as an Achieving the Dream institution several years ago, we were focused on first-time students, students of color, and underprepared students. That focus absolutely informed our decision to develop and commit resources to a reimagining of FYE.

Equity is an important value for us. We continue to experience an achievement gap between our students of color and our white students. Our students of color are not progressing at the same rate as other students. We’re also concerned about our Pell-eligible students and our adult students. Tri-C’s new strategic plan explicitly commits us to finding ways to close this gap in hopes of making completion attainable for all students, regardless of age, race, or economic standing. With this end in mind, we’re currently developing new persistence, retention, and completion goals for these three populations of concern and what the plan will be to get us there.


IHEP: I know Tri-C involved the entire campus in developing the program. Can you describe how you built this partnership? Were off-campus stakeholders involved?

We used an appreciative inquiry (AI) approach to collectively build the FYE initiative. Rather than focusing on problems to be solved, AI starts with what works well within an organization—what is critical about what we do—and then leverages that experience to imagine where we want to go.

We pulled hundreds of people together from across Tri-C to engage in this process. We invited representatives from every constituency on campus. Tri-C faculty and staff were integrated into the cross-functional teams of stakeholders that we developed. We particularly wanted to hear from everyday students about their experiences and what they wanted Tri-C to be like. We also held several collegewide meetings that attracted about a hundred people each. We used this process to discern our vision of what FYE might include, what the student experience of FYE should deliver, and what the desired outcomes were.

We also included representatives from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) in our AI process to develop the FYE initiative. We frequently work collaboratively with them to ensure student success, as they are one of our biggest supporters and provide a direct pipeline for students to the college. Their input, as well as the input of our students, faculty, staff, and administrators, collectively contributed to the final product. I believe it was well worth the time and effort we put into the process, and I think our CMSD partners would agree.

We rolled out the newly imagined FYE program components in August 2014.


IHEP: Can you explain how the specific components of the FYE program came about?

Development of the FYE initiative took place as we were developing a new strategic plan for the institution. Through that process we identified several key metrics—total degrees and certificates awarded every year, our three-year Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rate, the fall-to-spring retention rate, the fall-to-fall retention rate, the percentage of students who complete gateway English and math in one year, and the percentage of students who complete FYE in their first term. These metrics all fit into the broader conversation we’re having about equity—ensuring that all of our students persist and complete.

The components we built into FYE were very much shaped by the thoughts, concerns, and desires of the constituencies who participated in the process. For example, our counseling faculty feels very strongly about the value of orientation for students. Without orientation, they don’t get to develop relationships with key people who can help them succeed. They also don’t get a feel for the culture of the campus they’re going to attend. For these reasons, we knew it was important to embed new-student orientation into the FYE initiative.

Research suggests that students benefit from early connections to their disciplines. That’s what gets them excited. We know that’s why they’re here. With convocation we saw an opportunity to connect them with people in their program right from the start.

We also piloted a one-credit success seminar that covered topics like time management, financial responsibility, and good study skills. We found that students who had taken the seminar persisted at a higher rate and had higher GPAs than students who hadn’t taken the course. These First-Year Success seminars also became a component of FYE. Incoming students now have to register for an FYE course. We offer a number of options to make the course fit students’ schedules easily, but it is a requirement. Through the course, they learn about Tri-C’s student success resources, they develop an academic plan, and they connect with a faculty member and peer mentors. There’s a financial literacy component as well. By the time they complete the course, students know what resources we offer to help them manage their money as well as how the choices they make now will impact them when they leave us.

We also tried something different with our convocation exercises. We hold campus convocations, which are more similar to what you’d find at a traditional four-year institution. We wanted to get students excited, not just about participating in orientation or starting at Tri-C. We wanted them to keep the end in mind—to get excited about graduation. The message we hoped to send is that we want them to graduate just as much as they do, and that we’re going to help them stay on that path.

Convocation also helps connect students with their disciplines. Research suggests that students benefit from early connections to their disciplines. That’s what gets them excited. We know that’s why they’re here. With convocation we saw an opportunity to connect them with people in their program right from the start.

Like most community colleges, we use math and English tests at entry to place new students. We often find that some students will test at the highest end of a range but not quite cross the threshold into the next-higher level. In addition to FYE, we’ve created two-week Bridge courses in intensive math and English for students who fall into this category. We retest them at the end of the course. About half of the math Bridge students move to the next-higher level, while 75% of English Bridge students move to the next-highest level.

We’d always offered math and English placement practice tests, but students seldom took them. Now, we’ve started requiring students to complete these practice tests and we’ve seen great results.. For instance, preintervention, 72% of students tested into developmental English. After we started requiring students to take the practice test, 70% of students were placing into college-level English. Accelerating the pace at which students successfully meet program criteria means we can quicken the time it takes them to complete their degree and enter the workforce.

IHEP: Did implementing FYE require additional resources?

Well, it mostly involved reallocating existing dollars. There was no new money. We already had a team of people working on orientation, so that didn’t really change. We had faculty teams working to create the FYE success seminars. Once we made the seminars mandatory, enrollment in these courses jumped from a few hundred students to a couple thousand. That meant adding additional sections and hiring adjuncts, although our full-time faculty and then our counseling faculty had first right of refusal. Of course, if we succeed in retaining more students, we gain revenue.

IHEP: Participation in FYE is mandatory. Can you explain the rationale for that decision?

We took note of what other colleges were doing through our affiliation with Achieving the Dream, our involvement with AACC [American Association of Community Colleges], and the broader conversation about the importance of completion. We decided we needed to be much more intentional in designing a first-year experience for students, rather than have them experience the college by chance. We knew we needed additional structure and intentionality on the front end with college-readiness and to tighten up the experience on the back end with career readiness if we wanted to affect persistence and completion. MDRC’s research has found value in connecting students with academic pathways right from the beginning. My dissertation research found that students who are satisfied, engaged, and feel like part of the campus culture tend to be retained at higher levels. And then, of course, the positive outcomes we saw from piloting the FYE course made an impact. At the end of the day, we believed making participation mandatory and creating change at scale were necessary to make a significant difference in our outcomes.

IHEP: What challenges did you encounter in implementing the FYE program?

We struggled with compliance during our first year. Roughly 900 of 3,500 incoming students didn’t complete the required FYE course. We expect students to register for an FYE course and for convocation, but when they dropped one, the system didn’t always catch it. These technological loopholes make monitoring student progress time intensive for our staff. We have a lot of people in our student affairs offices assigned to triaging the FYE groups. Students who fail to complete the FYE program have holds applied to their student accounts, so they can’t register without intervention. This kind of case management requires a lot of staff time. We’re committed to continuous improvement, making adjustments as we go. We’re especially interested in closing loopholes and finding ways to use technology to reduce staff time on triage.


IHEP: What outcomes indicate that participation in FYE is improving the completion rate for Tri-C students?

I think the initial impact has been tremendous with regard to improved outcomes for students. As you know, community college students are quite different from students at a traditional four-year college. They’re at great risk with regard to attrition. They don’t enroll continuously until graduation. They start, stop out, return, and leave again. Not surprisingly, we’ve really struggled with our completion rate. We don’t always agree with how the measure is determined, but we don’t make excuses.

When we started, our IPEDS rate for first-time full-time students starting in the fall was 4.2%. Our president challenged us to do better, and in our first year we got the rate up to 5.5%. Our third-year goal was 8%—we hit 9.2%. This year, he’s challenged us to improve to 15% by the end of summer 2016. Given our total population of 25,000–29,000 students, that’s no small number.

Success requires us to be very intentional about that work. It means getting everyone’s eyes on our numbers. Not only at the highest level, but with our faculty, in all leadership groups, across all campuses. Everybody knows where we are with our key metrics at the end of every semester.

This experience also sets an important precedent for us. We now know that when we all pull together across the institution, we can make some pretty significant changes in a short amount of time. I think we realize now the power that we have to make a difference, and that’s exciting. Everyone at Tri-C knows the direction we’re headed in. No one is unclear about his or her role with regard to promoting student success and completion. Our president recognizes our accomplishments, but he hasn’t let up on us in terms of the ongoing challenges. And that’s a good thing.

IHEP: So what’s next?

We’re focusing now on students who haven’t been as successful. We’re targeting not only the first-years and the completers, but also the students who are somewhere in the middle. As we continue to fine-tune FYE, we’re now talking about redefining our student population. We think now in terms of first-year students, sophomores, and upper-class students. For us, sophomores are any students with two semesters under their belt but who have yet to complete college-level math and English. And that’s where the majority of our students are. We’ve got to do what we can to move those sophomores along. It’s important to us that all our students succeed and that we’re moving the dial for everybody in terms of retention and completion. It’s a question of equity for us, and that value is driving the conversation.

We’re also working on reshaping the student experience of academic majors by developing metamajors. Metamajors are an array of academic programs with common or related content. We’re creating what we call “care teams” of support made up of faculty, counseling faculty, and support staff, all clustered around students in the disciplines. We’re still figuring out what that’s going to look like.

We’re still engaged in the same campuswide process we used to develop FYE. Our efforts are now focused on how we can continue to reshape the Tri-C student experience to ensure everyone is both engaged from entry and guided on a direct path to completion.

IHEP: Finally, what advice do you have for other communi-ties hoping to learn from what Tri-C has achieved?

You must have engaged leadership from the top down. Everyone needs to be focusing on the same thing. If you get mixed messages from leadership about what the priorities are, you won’t be able to get everyone on the same page. You need someone at the top who knows exactly where you need to go and can effectively convey that message to leadership at all levels of the institution. You need very specific targets, very specific outcomes, benchmarks, and a realistic timeline. Once you have buy-in on the plan and campus constituencies start driving the conversation, collecting feedback, encouraging involvement, and keeping it positive, you can achieve some incredible things.

I don’t mean to suggest this was easy. It’s definitely not easy. We’re a large institution: four campuses, two corporate colleges, and a district office. It’s a big ship to turn. I don’t think any of us thought that we could have moved so quickly. But if we can do it, then with the right leadership anybody can do it.

Chapter 3 Download


Tri-C Challenger’s Guide: Practical Advice for College Success and Personal Growth

This workbook was developed by Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) faculty and administrators for use by students enrolled in the college’s credit-bearing First-Year Success seminars. Topics include time management, test-taking and study skills, career exploration, wellness, and money management. Learners are also encouraged to make connections with student support advisors and programs at the college.

Page length: 63

First-Year Experience Program: Frequently Asked Questions

Designed for a student audience, this publication uses an FAQ format to provide introductory information about Tri-C’s First-Year Experience (FYE)—a suite of programs, courses, and events designed to support, integrate, and retain incoming students. Topics include program components, eligibility, cost, and deadlines.

Page length: 4

Sharpening Focus: Strategic Plan FY16–18

This publication outlines Tri-C’s six strategic focus areas, which include student completion, student experience, and equity in outcomes. The document provides a critical institutional context for the development of the FYE program, objectives, intended outcomes, and target population.

Page length: 2

Job Link Services

This brochure describes Tri-C’s Job Link Services—a student support service that works in partnership with local employers and civic and community organizations to provide career coaching and skill building.

Page length: 2

Additional Resources

A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success [2012: Center for Community College Student Engagement]

This report describes promising practices intended to advance engagement, persistence, and completion for underprepared and underserved students; identifies design principles for effective intervention strategies; and includes perspectives from students and faculty on student engagement and the college experience.

Unheard Voices: First-Generation Students and the Community College [2015: Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers]

The author (a community college administrator) reports the results of a qualitative research study that investigated the experiences of first-generation students enrolled at one of several Oregon community colleges. Students reported that off-campus employment often inhibited campus engagement and academic success (a finding in line with prior studies of student attrition). Female students’ circumstances (e.g., caregiving responsibilities) often imposed additional barriers that their male counterparts did not face. Older students often reported that their experience was not validated in the classroom. The study provides useful insight into the experiences of an understudied setting for first-year success.

Community College Orientation Basics: How to Structure a New-Student Orientation Program [2008: National Academic Advising Association]

Intended for community college administrators tasked with developing an orientation program for new students, this article provides a set of organizing questions to help identify goals, desired outcomes, and resources; develop a schedule; and determine a format. The authors also provide case studies that detail how orientation programs were developed at two community colleges in the Midwest.

Urban Colleges Dealing With Unique Retention Issues [2015: Diverse Education]

Published in Diverse Education, this article profiles the challenges public and private urban institutions face in promoting student persistence and completion. Large populations of part-time and commuter students often mean that students’ time on campus is limited, which restricts their access to student support services and diminishes engagement. The article also describes how one university is using student data to develop intervention strategies, while another is building high-impact educational practices into its core curriculum.

Is College Worth It for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School [2013: Kresge Foundation]

Postsecondary administrators interested in reimagining how their institutions engage with and support adult student success may find this report helpful. Researchers identify and describe expectations, attitudes, and needs of prospective and incoming adult students. Although respondents reported less concern about social integration than their traditionally aged peers, they are less convinced of their potential to succeed and are less likely to have concrete plans for college.

The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success [2015: The Education Trust]

This report provides graduation rate data for Pell Grant recipients at over 1,100 four-year public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions and argues that closing the achievement gap between Pell and non-Pell students will require focus on both access and outcomes. Examples of successful intervention strategies from a range of institution types provide helpful suggestions for promising practices.