The Impact of Greater Institutional Collaboration on Student SuccessColette Atkins | Dean of Business and Information Technology, Kirkwood Community College
Community colleges and four-year universities have a tendency to work in silos, an arm’s length away from one-another. This is mainly due to the difference in mission between these institutions. But today, with the greater focus on student success and degree completion, it’s more critical than ever for two- and four-year institutions to work more collaboratively. In this interview, Colette Atkins reflects on the differences in work done by these institutions and shares her thoughts on how all parties would benefit from closer collaboration.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant differences between adults pursuing postsecondary education at a two-year institution compared with those pursuing a four-year degree?
Colette Atkins (CA): Community colleges and four-year institutions, at their cores, are very similar. For instance, their missions are quite similar. When you talk about four-year institutions there is a great deal of differentiation. You have state regional schools, which are four-year institutes that are built specifically to serve adult students, as well as small colleges and universities that have done a very good job at quickly changing the way in which they do business—especially for adult learners.
Adult students enrol in community colleges to quickly re-tool to re-enter into the workforce or to quickly fill a skill gap that they have in their current position. Community colleges adapt very well and very quickly to the workforce needs within the community, whereas larger four-year institutions don’t have the ability to do that. Four-year institutions also may not offer the programming that adult learners are looking for when they do choose to return to school.
There are a handful of small non-profit private universities that have done a very fine job in instituting alternative modality to serve students seeking convenience, night sessions, online sessions, condensed or accelerated sessions within their program. Adult students are more likely to find these at four-year institutions than at community colleges, which are for the most part still operating on the semester system.
Evo: How do these differences impact the way two-year colleges work to attract adult learners?
CA: Community colleges are directly connected to the needs of local employers. They are sometimes working directly with those employers, and the employers are saying, “We see that we have a group of employees that really need these skills,” or “We are going to be creating 50 new jobs within the next two years and we need folks within our community to have a specific skill set.”
Community colleges have done an excellent job of staying connected and grounded in what local employers need today but also forecasting what they will need tomorrow, next week, or in the next few years. Though four-year institutions are somewhat connected, these universities are bigger ships so to turn them around takes a little more time. As such, it’s harder for four-year institutions to quickly respond with programming that directly supports the needs of the local employers.
Evo: Have you noticed any major differences in the way institutions work to drive student persistence in the two-year environment?
CA: Four-year colleges have done a great job of offering alternative modalities which decreases the amount of time that students need to spend completing courses from semester to semester. They can, for example, condense a 16-week course into five to ten weeks. When you shorten sessions, students are more likely to persist and complete that session—especially if they’re adult students who have a range of additional challenges to manage that sometimes require them to step out before completing a full semester.
Evo: Where are you seeing increased focus on intrusive advising?
CA: The prevalence of intrusive approaches to advising depends on the size of the program and, in my experience, this is most common at four-year institutions that serve adult students. Leaders in these programs are a little more intrusive because they recognize and are familiar with the challenges that are going to present themselves to students during their time in the program.
On the flip side, community college adult learners are thrown in with all the students, which means all learners are in one pot. Community colleges work diligently to be intrusive and support all students but it is hard if you have 14,000 students like we have at Kirkwood Community College. It’s more of a challenge to group them together, so it means we’re trying to be intrusive with all of the students at the same time.
Institutions that have decided to serve adult students—whether they’re four-year or two-year—are better at more intrusively assisting the adult students to persist through degree attainment.
Evo: What are some of the factors that make it difficult to deliver that kind of supportive experience at the two-year college?
CA: Resources are always a concern; there are never enough people or enough dollars or the right technology. I would also argue the academy has been doing things the same way for several decades – serving all learners with the traditional higher education model. The model must change to support all learners, including adult students.
A few ways to initiate such change is reviewing all policies and asking why. Many policies negatively impact all students, specifically the returning adult. Another avenue to pursue change is to work collaboratively with both your internal colleagues, and your external colleagues. Find ways to provide a quality, accessible education by harnessing all the available resources—maybe those of others. Lastly, make sure to find those campus champions. They will be in addition to the other internal colleagues. These folks will talk the talk and walk the walk helping move all change forward.
Evo: How could persistence be improved across the board?
CA: The best scenario would be for four-year institutions to find ways to join forces with the community college. Four-year institutions need to work with community colleges so the community colleges can bring these students in for the first two years, allowing the student to re-tool or learn a skill and stop out there if they want. For those that want to earn a four-year degree but are not ready to step into a four-year environment yet, having four-year institutions working collaboratively with the two-year institutions helps ensure these students get their academic skill set to where it needs to be to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. It is a mutually-beneficial relationship—for the student, the institutions, and the community.
This model is often perceived as backwards to administrators at four-year institutions because they want the students to start there and finish there, thus managing the student’s entire academic experience. However, there’s really a lot of bang for your buck when you decide to join forces to serve students more collaboratively, and honestly, that’s what’s best for them.
Cost is a factor, too. Community colleges, by the nature of who they are, have the luxury of charging less per credit hour than any four-year institution.