Monday, November 16, 2009

Day 93 - The biggest challenge facing colleges

A new report states that "connecting" is the key challenge facing today's colleges, especially community colleges, where as many faculty members teach on a part-time basis as the students who attend.

The "part timeness" of students and faculty members is a very real problem all colleges are facing in trying to create strong campus connections, according to this year's Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

Students who enroll part-time are less engaged than their full-time peers, and they are much more likely to drop out of college. The likelihood is highest at the community colleges, where close to two-thirds of students attend part time.

I started my own back-to-school adventure as a part-timer, and an over-the-hill one at that. So, I know first-hand how difficult it is to feel connected when you're juggling a job and classes. Add family responsibilities to the mix and it's no wonder less than half of those who go back to school actually finish their degrees. Going to school part-time is more feasible, however. It is the option that may make attaining a degree possible. The real key is learning how to act "full time" when you're only on campus part of the time.

To master the trick, start by planning your course schedule all the way to graduation at the beginning. Don't think, "Oh, I'll just take a class and see how it goes." That is not making a commitment, and committing is necessary to success.

Several articles in recent academic publications offer encouragement and specific strategies colleges and universities can use to improve student engagement. That's great. We need all the help we can get. In the end, however, it is up to the student to make the effort. All too often, I watched non-traditional classmates sit at the back of a classroom, aiming to be as unobtrusive as possible. The second the class ends, they race to their cars. Many never participate in class discussions or outside study groups. I get that. The first time I raised my hand to make a simple comment in a classroom after nearly 30 years away, well yes, it was weird. And then I got over it. I did this by actively engaging with other students (after class and during breaks), by fully "owning" my student status.

The more I got to know my classmates and staff and faculty across the campus, the more I realized that I was no different from any of them. We are all here for the same reasons - to learn and to teach.
Student peers have offered me the best advice through my recent college career. Actively participating in campus events did the rest by allowing me to feel like part of the community. It mattered. It may be the intangible ingredient that helped keep me on track by focusing on the real goal - not a single class but rather the entire experience of being a student - again.

If you also have a desire to pursue your education further, take Nike's advice and "Just Do It." Part time or full, you'll learn things you never knew about yourself.


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