Administrator’s Guide to Improving Student Success in Community College.

May 31, 2023

By: Tonya Riney, Ph.D.

Reading Time: 5.4

As an administrator, you face unique challenges in defining and enabling student success in a community college. Your students have diverse goals: some may be focused on taking only a course or two for upskilling, others may be working toward a certificate, some may define an associate degree as their endpoint, and some see a baccalaureate degree as their goal.

In addition to having a diversity of goals, your students may have different needs than students attending four-year colleges. Your students are often local, have competing priorities (such as work and family responsibilities), and may be facing a range of socioeconomic challenges.

Given a community college student’s diverse goals and needs, how should community colleges most effectively define, enable, and monitor student success? This article presents best practices gathered during a recent webinar panel discussion by IntelliBoard.

Defining Different Cohorts of Students

Defining success for students at your community college can start with grouping students into cohorts:

  • Working adult learners focused on obtaining a degree (who may or may not matriculate to a baccalaureate program)
  • Full-time students focused on obtaining a degree (who may or may not matriculate to a baccalaureate program)
  • Working adult learners focused on obtaining a certificate for a skilled trade
  • Adult learners who may not have experienced success in their secondary program
  • Learners who wish to gain skills, but are not necessarily seeking a completion degree

Each cohort has its own definition of success. For students enrolled only for a course or two, success is completing those courses (and most community colleges do not track or “count” these as successes). For those seeking a more traditional form of “completion,” the certificate, degree, and/or diploma is their metric, and likely the metric for the college, too.

Enabling Student Success in Community College Using Cohorts

Supporting different cohorts pursuing their specific goals requires multiple strategies to enable student success in community college.

Establish Different Orientations for Different Cohorts of Students

A key practice for promoting community college student success is offering cohort-specific orientations.

“Have a general orientation for the traditional college student, but also have orientations for transfer students, one for adult learners, and specific orientations for other subsets of students,” advises Gary King, a former associate dean for student affairs at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

Angela Kersenbrock, the President of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, echoes this advice, recommending program-specific orientations as well.

“We started doing program-specific orientations for community college baccalaureate students — so, an orientation for all the business and information management students, a different orientation for all of the high sciences students, etc,” says Kersenbrock. “We found that this approach helped the students to start to form a community with themselves and their faculty.”

Design the Curriculum for Each Specific Cohort

Another way to improve community college student outcomes is to design each community college cohort’s curriculum to support their cohort-specific goals.

For working adults and skill-seeking learners, the curriculum must have connections to the local industries their programs target: a cybersecurity program should be marketed to and supported by local firms either needing cybersecurity or providing it.

“If a working adult learner sees that classes are taught by industry professionals or incorporate some other connection to the industry, these students are much more likely to stay,” explains Kersenbrock.

Another strategy to improve the retention of working adult community college students is to build periodic short-term rewards to break up the longer-term path to a degree. For example, awarding industry-specific certifications after a certain number of courses is one such incentive.

In addition, students with a career program navigator or advisor is critical to promoting their success regardless of what their goals were when they enrolled. People need to feel supported. This is particularly crucial to a community college student who has already experienced multiple barriers along the path.

Establish Support Systems and Monitor Student Success

Community colleges throughout the U.S. support their students through “grants” or forms of financial aid that address common financial challenges. Your community college can establish “emergency” grants that pay for flat tires, bus fees, heating bills, or other unexpected costs that could prevent a student from staying focused on their learning goals.

Gary King also recommends that community colleges adopt the mindset that their institutions should be ready to support their students, rather than assuming that their students are ready to adapt to college life, especially first-generation students who may not have had a parent or guardian’s guiding hand

Just as important as an effective student support system is the means to monitor student progress and persistence via an integrated data system. The ability to monitor student progress, attendance, and engagement is necessary for a timely intervention to help a student get back on track.

Integration of your learning management system (LMS) and student information system (SIS) is critical because each system alone presents only a partial portrait of a student. With integrated data, you see a student’s progress coupled with their socioeconomic profile, allowing the college to create more individualized interventions.

Your community college can achieve integrated data via IntelliBoard, a learning intelligence platform that enables you, your colleagues, and your college to integrate your multiple data sources for more holistic insights. IntelliBoard uses machine learning to predict students (and dollars) at risk and notifies the right people at the right time to create positive change.

A community college system in North Carolina uses IntelliBoard in multiple ways: identifying students who are not logging in (and notifying Student Success), tracking program success, and the all-important census report for financial auditing.

“When I was an academic advisor managing 600 students, if I had had a tool like IntelliBoard that could notify me when some of those students needed me, I would have been reaching out to them to see what help was needed,” says King.

Implementing These Best Practices for Student Success in Community College

If our recent survey is an indication of what you and your college experiences, you may have defined success for different cohorts and set up systems to enable success; however, key personnel struggle with having easy access to data. Our survey found that 63% of our surveyed participants lack easy access to data, 50% of our surveyed respondents struggle to make data-driven decisions, and 50% are unable to identify at-risk students.

To help your community college more easily access data and identify at-risk students, please reach out to IntelliBoard to learn how our learning intelligence platform brings your learning data together to enable data-driven decision-making.

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Tonya Riney, Ph.D.

Dr. Tonya Riney is the COO for IntelliBoard, Inc. Dr. Riney taught in a university classroom for more than 10 years and worked within several eLearning departments. Her PhD is in Training and Performance Improvement, with IntelliBoard being a clear passion for how it influences learning in a positive way.


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