Putting the Community back into the Community College

The big talk around Reinvention is increasing retention and completion rates. Though there is controversy about the statistics, there seems to be agreement on one thing: it could be much better. And, as educators, we’re concerned not only with the numbers of completion, but the quality of the education itself. Lots of money has been spent, and I’m overjoyed to know that we’re confirmed to get 20 full-time faculty during the Fall and Spring semesters. But what else should we examine?

Perhaps we are overlooking the importance of community. For those of us who’ve been here for a few years, we’re liable to overlook this problem, because we feel and experience the HWC community.  But our target students here aren’t the ones who’ve been around for three or four years, of course: it’s the students who are in their first or second semester. We might be liable to forget that the social glue that keeps us here doesn’t even exist for our new students.

For our faculty and administrative readers, think back for a moment to your undergrad years. What was your experience? What kept you in school? What encouraged you to be successful? When I was an undergrad, I lived on or near campus for four years. During my first year I would wake up in my dorm room early, shower, and stop by the cafeteria every morning. The cafeteria didn’t offer the tastiest food, but it was quick, healthy and inexpensive. The cafeteria was spacious, and coffee was unlimited. I often sat with the same small group of students, and we would chat about any number of things. And although it wasn’t the only thing we talked about, our discussions frequently centered on the shared experience of our classes and our studies. Even when the subject was academic, the conversation was casual. Sometimes, heated debates about ideas formed, but it was generally fun and welcome. I would walk to campus, run into fellow students, occasionally see a professor grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning and have a quick chat about class. In between classes, I’d walk off to sit in the spacious student commons or sit by the lake. During that time, I’d reflect on my classes, chat with classmates, or do homework. But I was on campus and feeling like I belonged to the college and its community. After class, I’d go back to the dorm, eat dinner in the cafeteria, and get into discussions about classes and being a student. Sometimes, we’d go to the bar, but even then, huddled over our delicious pints, the conversations were frequently about school.

I would deign to guess that most of us faculty had a parallel experience. Our life, and our friends’ lives, revolved around school and its associated activities and people.

But contrast this with the experience of our students. For starters, not a single student lives on campus. They live throughout vast Chicago, often with family, partners, or roommates, most of whom are not sharing their college experience. Even those that support the idea of their loved one being in college don’t necessarily know how to support that life in practice. Our students often work fulltime, and many of their friends are non-college students and are constantly encouraging them to socialize in various healthy or unhealthy ways. And when they are with their friends or family, it is difficult to talk about school, because they are not speaking to people that are part of their college community. When they show up to campus, the places to hang out are few, and nothing is ideal. Your friends may be hanging out in one of the college’s lounges, but in all likelihood, you will not know it because the lounges are so disparate and isolated. You may find yourself in one of the lounges adjacent to an elevator, but the noise of traffic is too distracting to think and reflect. Perhaps you find a patch of floor somewhere to sit on. Perhaps you go to the basement, a veritable dungeon, and are lucky enough to find someone you know.

What affect does this have on retention rates? Student performance? Student completion?

I read something once, I can’t remember where, that students who involved themselves with student clubs were significantly less likely to drop out. I think it’s a relatively safe assumption that not being on campus is even more destructive to retention rates than not being in a student club. This feeling of community is critical to a college students’ success. Ironically, the community college lacks this feeling of community for most everybody, except for those faculty, staff, and students who have been around for multiple years—but our target here are those students who are in their first or second semester.

Yes, we have community areas at HWC. We have a small, dark, cramped “cafeteria” in the basement with overpriced sub-par food at a cafeteria that only caters to daytime students. The other alternative is a row of vending machines packed with over-priced poor-quality junk foods.  The faculty has a classroom on the 10th floor.

The miniature skyscraper architecture of our building is a problem, though a necessary one so long as we fill our legacy as the Loop’s city college. The elevators, escalators and stairs are annoying, and it creates bottle-necks in our movements from place to place. For those of you brought up on large campuses, how often did you stroll around the buildings, run into acquaintances, and see posters for lectures, clubs, and presentations that had nothing to do with your discipline? At HWC, how often do you find yourself on one of your non-business floors, simply strolling and running into students and colleagues? My life is regulated to the 10th floor, and occasionally the 11th to drop something off at reprographics, or the 2nd to turn in some roster. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been on the fourth floor. Have I ever even seen the sixth floor? I can’t recall. Maybe once. I’d imagine that your experience is similar to mine in this regard.

There is only one floor, one space, that every student, faculty, staff and administrator have in common. So here’s an idea: let’s create an accessible, open, welcoming place that breeds a community of ideas and learning. Room 102 and 103 are big, often empty spaces on the first floor. Everyone walks by and frequently glances in. What would it be like to have regular coffee house hours there, where the administration sets out catered coffee and cookies. Nothing too high-maintenance: something sustainable. Say, every day, setup a few coffee jugs, some fruits or cookies, and see what happens.  Set the time for 3pm to 5pm, so it is relatively accessible to morning and evening students (or ideally, all the time). Yes, it costs money, but if it increases the feeling of community, if professors are encouraged to hang out and even hold some office hours there, if we’re encouraged to engage each other and especially our students in casual conversations about the ideas they’re learning in class, it might very well increase retention rates and student enthusiasm. How much would this cost? How much does one of those CCC ads on the back of a CTA bus cost? Which would do more good? In the end, a small cost that could bring about great benefit.

6 thoughts on “Putting the Community back into the Community College

  1. I’m with you boss. A very eloquent proposal that quiet possibly none of the task force members (or supervisors of the task force members) have stumbled upon.

    I would have no problem spending some “office time” in a lounge on the first floor with students. They are hungry for community. They seek each other out and crowd our halls (in a good way).

    As you’ve stated, we have events scheduled in these first floor rooms but with a bit of time and maybe the right amount of coordination, it could serve as a community room. We use it for the holiday party. We use it for state of the college. It was used to spread, err, distribute the orange t-shirts.

    I don’t know how an administrator can say no to giving this idea a trial run. I know they were renting the space out to outside organizations. Would profit trump student benefit?

    Here’s a thought: We could delegate some of the smaller functions during the semester to the dungeon in order to keep the first floor rooms available for congregating. No administration and/or faculty might say? ‘Cause it’s too dark and dismal? If so, then why are we sending students down there?

  2. Hi Swanson,

    I think I know where you read it. Try Tinto 1970, 1993, Astin 1970, 1993 among others. The tendency recognized in the lit is that institutions focus on retention numbers as an end product rather than investigating the reasons why these numbers are as they are. What is needed is a greater focus on community and belonging. You are right on about the EXPERIENCE. The greatest factors having a positive impact on student persistence are FACULTY STUDENT relationships (with Tinto and Astin emphasizing that students who visit their teachers at home for dinner or other social activities have higher levels of persistence?) AND STUDENT PEER relationships.

    Everything I have read, surveys of first year students that I have conducted in ELL and that the Focus on Excellence Self Study have collected supports your ideas about community, belonging, and sense of place. I’ve also read about one community college that completely reconfigured student spaces to allow to students to better utilize dead spaces in hallways for the outside of class academic discourse you mention. I can look it up if you like. I also agree with realist and it seems a good way to start is to consider new furniture on the second floor and in the elevator sitting areas to increase comfort and discourse. On 4 for example the chairs are like rocks. The computer has no chair and discourages students from using it. No one wants to sit there.

    I’m putting up part of the lit review section of my First Year ELL Experience Project. The themes relate to all first year students since most of the research applies to the total population of first years.

    “Most research regarding student rates of persistence has focused on why college students in the general student population choose to or choose not to persist in higher education. From the literature, it is clear that three general areas of the educational experience affect overall student persistence in higher education; background, academics, and social relationships. The first, background, is beyond the influence of the institution itself, and consists of factors including; demographic variables, such as age and gender, attitude toward education, family background, familial support, and the quantity and quality of prior educational experiences (Astin 1970, 1977, 1993; Tinto, 1970). However, research also suggests that other factors leading to student persistence remain within the influence of the institution. Astin (1970, 1993) suggests an Input-Environment-Output model of student attrition in which input cannot be controlled, and goes on to state that as open door admissions becomes more common these factors will influence success rates to a greater extent (1993). Still, environment, in this case academic environment, is an area that can be studied and perhaps improved. Tinto (1975, 1993) further delineates two major areas within Astin’s proposed environment and proposes that integration into the academic and social environment are key factors in predicting student persistence. In a follow up study, Terenzini and Pascarella (1980) suggest that in Tinto’s view “the student brings to college such characteristics as family background and personal attributes and experiences, each of which is presumed to influence not only college performance, but also initial levels of goal and institutional commitment. These characteristics and commitments, in turn, interact with various structural and normative features of the particular college or university and lead to varying levels of integration into the academic and social systems of the institution” (p. 272). In other words, the interaction with policies and programs of the institution would cause background conflicts to reduce or increase in overall effect on student persistence. In addition, the study supported Tinto’s concept of academic and social integration having a major impact on student persistence and further concluded that “the evidence suggests that high levels of academic integration tend to compensate for low levels of social integration, and vice versa” (p. 280). The conclusions of six studies identified non- class contacts with faculty, as well as positive motivating interactions with peers as being particularly significant. Astin (1993) in his book, What matters in College: Four Years Revisited also points repeatedly at the positive factors of student success being faculty student interaction and peer affiliation as being positive contributors toward persistence.

    From these efforts, models regarding factors that influence student persistence have been the motivation for the creation of many first year experience programs in institutions across the United States and abroad. Further research in the area of retention of nontraditional students further emphasizes the necessity for academic and social integration in the institution (Blake, 2006; Grayson, 2008; Howe, 2008). For nonnative speakers of English in ESL programs, lack of academic and social integration combined with issues of culture shock, discrimination from peers (Bonazzo, & Wong, 2007), repeated failure to succeed because of non-standard English (Dao, Lee, & Chang, 2007; Eiselen, 2002), and a general sense of not belonging (Hsieh, 2006; Klomegah, 2006; Lin, 2010; Olivas & Li, 2006; Qing, Schweisfurth & Day, 2010; Ramsay, Barker & Jones, 1999; Ramsay, Jones & Barker, 2007), can impede student integration and, as a consequence, student persistence beyond the first year and student success.

    Many institutions provide some sort of first year student initiative. It may be a first year student seminar focusing on study skills or taking a thematic approach (Allen, 2004), a convocation (Barefoot, Gardner, Cutright, Morris, Schroeder, Schwartz, Siegel, and Swing, 2005), a common pre first year reading (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt, 2005), community building activities (Schrader &Brown, 2008) or an outdoor orientation (Bell, Holmes, & Williams, 2010). However, each effort in isolation does very little to improve overall student integration or increase student persistence. Any effective first year experience must transpire at the institutional level and must be comprehensive (Alexander &Gardner, 2009; Hunter, 2006)”

    “Both Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt (2005) and Barefoot, Gardner, Cutright, Morris, Schroeder, Schwartz, Siegel, and Swing (2005) provide an overview of institutional conditions and specific examples of institutions that demonstrate overall “effective educational practice” and attention to the first year experience of students at both two year and four year institutions. All note that there is no magic design for student success. First year initiatives are specifically created for the populations they serve and have intertwined the values and beliefs of the institution. However, tendencies were noted in institutions that were particularly effective in the overall college experience and even more essential to the first year. Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt’s (2005) model and Barefoot, Gardner, Cutright, Morris, Schroeder, Schwartz, Siegel, and Swing’s (2005) four criteria of providing for the first year student, as well as social and academic integration factors as studied by Pascarella and Terenzini (1979) are summarized in the table below.”

    (I have reformatted the table because it does not paste here)

    Table 2: Measures of Improvement of the College and First Year Student Experience
    Measures of Social and Academic Integration

    Pascarella and Terenzini (1979) Demonstrating Effective Educational Practice

    The following criteria were determined as having the greatest impact on overall retention;
    • Peer-Group Relations
    • Informal Relations With Faculty
    • Faculty Concern for Teaching and Student Development
    • Academic and Intellectual Development
    • Institutional Goal Commitment

    Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt (2005) Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College

    Effective institutions possess the following qualities:

    • Living missions and lived educational philosophy,
    • A focus on student learning,
    • Environments adapted for educational enrichment/sense of place,
    • Clear paths to student success,
    • Improvement oriented ethos,
    • Shared responsibility for student success,
    • Academic challenge,
    • Active and collaborative learning,
    • Student/faculty interaction,
    • Enriching educational experiences, and
    • Supportive campus environments.

    Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College
    Barefoot, Gardner, Cutright, Morris, Schroeder, Schwartz, Siegel, and Swing (2005)

    The following five criteria were determined as having the greatest impact on the first year;
    C1: “Evidence of intentional comprehensive approach to the first year,”
    C2: “Evidence of assessment of the various initiatives that constitute this approach,”
    C3: “Broad impact on significant numbers of first year students including but not limited to special sub populations,”
    C4: “Strong administrative support for first year initiatives,” and
    C5: “Involvement of a wide range of faculty, student affairs professionals, academic administrators and other constituent groups.”

  3. Kamran,

    You have good ideas! I think that faculty and staff need to build community as well! Not only do we have to bond with our students, but we have to bond with each other!

    As for using room 103 and 102, many events go on all year long such as the play by the Loop Players, Transfer Fairs, Career Fairs, Activities for Student Clubs. We could do a type of HWC Cafe, but we would have to check with Gabe Razo in the President’s Office to Book the room. I am sure that President Laackman would be on board to build community. Malcolm does events like “Donuts with the Dean,” and I have always wanted to do something like “Pizza with the Prez!” I think the one thing that would have to be discussed is who will pay for such events.

    According to Astin’s Theory of Involvement, students who are involved are more likely to persist, to retained, and to hopefully graduate. As a professor, you should encourage your students to join clubs and to attend the student “Club Days” where they can shop for a club!

    On a staff level, I think that many people in the building only know people on their floor. It is important for there to be a symbolic marriage of faculty with all of the student affairs offices. I know that students have advising or financial aid questions, and it helps to have a name to which students can be directed. Likewise, student affairs should reach out to the faculty as well. It goes both ways.

    As for staff bonding, I think that if staff is happy, it trickles down to the students as well. That’s not the only answer, but it helps! I am doing the outing to see Westside Story on Wednesday, August 10, and I am wanting to do “Family Lunches” perhaps at Caffe Cafe so that faculty and staff can meet for monthly lunches and all break bread together. What do you all think about that idea? That would get people off of their floor and bonding with others.

    If you need help with the HWC Cafe Idea, let me know! 🙂

    Ellen Goldberg egoldberg1@ccc.edu

  4. First, the alienated faculty,staff and administrators(a.k.a) departments and or units need to build community which then will strengthen the feeling of “connectedness”.
    There was a time when the activity period on Thursday afternoons was “sacred” and no classes were scheduled at that time.This allowed active committee meetings to be conducted as well as other events like union meetings etc.Many faculty were present providing an excellent opportunity for participation and productive discourse.
    Students have mentioned to me that they would like faculty and others to be part of their organizations.I believe this will help the students feel the support outside the classroom and experience the comfort of knowing that the college is more than just attending class and getting out of the door as fast as they can.
    Making the experience welcoming and supportive will do much to make them want them to stay and return and hopefully graduate.

  5. As far as funding these events (which are sorely needed), there is an organization called the SGA which has funds paid by students via activity fees. I believe the money is for events like the ones mentioned in this thread in addition to parties and fundraisers, which all help foster a sense of community at our college.

    I have had the privilege of informal discussion with many faculty, staff and administrators from our college and the rest of CCC. I will say that my “persistence” has been strengthened by my role at the college and the “networking” that I have done. Whether or not I am a better student…well, that’s yet to be determined. I do know it makes me a better person overall. So there ya go.

    If there is to be a committee to propose and initiate these events, it can not be managed by one person. It would need an organization of people, an organization with a strong number of students involved…after all, it’s all about U.

    I meant Us.

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