Anyone who has struggled to graduate can remember a person who intervened and helped them cross the finish line. For students on the brink of dropping out of community college, proper academic counseling can be the lifeline that gets them back on track.
Suzanne Cox often provides that lifeline. She’s one of 30 full time counselors at Cuyahoga Community College, one of the largest two-year colleges in Ohio. She describes her job as part academic advisor, part teacher, part career advisor, and part personal counselor.
“College is an intimidating place for students, particularly for first generation students or returning students who make up a lot of our community college population,” Cox says.
More than 60 percent of Tri-C students attend part-time. Cox says students tend to be older than traditional college students, and many juggle school with a full time job and caring for their children or parents. And with so many things on their plate, it can be hard for students to develop a strong academic plan on their own.
Cox says that’s where counselors can make a big difference.
“Having that connection with someone who cares, who says I’m here for you, I’ll encourage you. If you need me, here’s my card, just that simple act of encouraging someone is really, really important,” Cox says.
But as much as she tries, Cox says she doesn’t always have much time to build a relationship with every student she advises. Students are required to attend orientation and see a counselor when they first enroll, but after that it’s up to them to seek out academic advising when they need it. Some may see an advisor only once during their entire college experience.
“The hardest thing about that,” Cox says, “is knowing some of these students will make it to graduation and some of them won’t. I want them all to graduate, and its hard knowing that someone who has so much potential just doesn’t make it there, or doesn’t make it on my timetable.”
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show only 20 percent of first time, full time, two-year college students complete an associate’s degree within three years.
Melinda Mechur Karp, a researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, says community colleges are under pressure to find ways to help more students cross the finish line.
“Advising is a really critical component and it is about figuring out what students need when they need it, and providing it to them in a proactive manner in a way that doesn’t take away their agency, that doesn’t infantilize them, but gives them the tools to move forward when they need them before it’s too late,” Karp says.
But ensuring all students receive proactive academic advising is a tall order at many schools.
A 2011 survey from the National Academic Advising Association shows advisors at two-year colleges have a median caseload of 441 students each. Add to that budget cuts in recent years that have eroded support services, and Karp says counselors are overwhelmed.
“Counseling centers are under-resourced. That’s the bottom line. They don’t have enough staff and they don’t have enough funds,” Karp says.
That’s why many two year colleges are experimenting with different ways of advising students. Some are turning to online academic program planning tools that will send a red flag to an advisor when a student is veering off track. Others are mandating that students attend an advising seminar their in their first semester.
At Tri-C, school officials say they’re trying to better use the initial student orientation and make sure all students have a plan mapped out. They’re giving faculty more of a role in advising students.
And, says Karen Miller, Tri-C’s vice president of enrollment and student affairs, they’re trying to do more to enhance the campus experience.
“Students make a decision very quickly about whether they’re happy about being here, excited and engaged about being here and are going to stay, or whether they’re not,” Miller says. ”And that usually happens within the first 3 or 4 weeks of them engaging with the college. And so it is absolutely critical that we create the experience that we know is going to help them be successful right from the beginning.”
To Miller, that means borrowing from four year universities and focusing on their campus culture.
This fall, the college will revamp its orientation process, spice up its campus convocation, and roll out a mandatory success course for first time students that emphasizes the importance – and availability – of counselling.