Bringing 'Community' Back to Community College Students

Bringing 'Community' Back to Community College Students


What do Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Walt Disney, James Dean, George Lucas, Teri Hatcher, Eddie Murphy, and Halle Berry have in common?

They all attended community college but never finished.

The same thing is true for 66 to 80 percent of students who enroll. But clearly, they don’t all end up with careers in the movies. This week’s NY EdTech’s Meetup, “Community College Spotlight: Edtech at 2-Year Schools” illuminated the challenges for those who attend and operate these schools and presented potential ways that technology can be part of the solution to lowering the huge dropout rates.

The panelists represented a broad range of expertise: Alexandra Meis, (Co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Kinvolved), Gina Sipley (Instructor at Nassau Community College, SUNY), Professor David Finegold (Chief Academic Officer of American Honors) and Melinda Mechur Karp (Assistant Director, Teachers College, Columbia University).

Basic Truths About Community Colleges

Compared with private four-year schools, community colleges are asked to do more for their students with fewer resources. The panelists agreed that the $60 billion President Obama wants to spend on tuition relief for community colleges could be better spent on helping students to graduate instead. The main areas highlighted for improvement include:

  • Improving systems and processes to run the schools more efficiently and effectively (registration processes, administrative loads, etc.).
  • Investing in means of helping people graduate, providing them with the tools and resources to navigate (Better designed online resources, improved mobile access, more effective counseling services, etc.)

Who Are Today’s Community College Students?

While community college students have typically been older than the students attending four-year schools, we are seeing younger students enrolling these days, with the average age of 29 years old.

As the panelists pointed out, these students typically need to catch up on coursework before immersing in an academic program. Many are first-generation college students and lack the “social capital” to navigate the college experience. Course selection and scheduling are new to them. Many work and have less time to focus on their studies. They have families and need more flexible scheduling. They tend not to form cohorts like their four-year-college counterparts, and confront a major information barrier when it comes to policies, processes and procedures.

What Would You Ask?

Throughout the evening it was clear that the panelists believed that a combination of systemic change and technological advances is necessary to improve the community college situation.

When asked what they would say to US President Barack Obama or NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sipley was direct in asking for “More consistent and reliable broadband, and a Donors Choose for higher ed.”

Finegold noted the need for “more dual enrollment opportunities” to help increase the opportunities for success, while Karp highlighted more preventative tactics, asking that we “do more to prepare students for the college experience before they get there.” She also called for “Putting systems in place for relationship building amongst students.”

How Can Edtech Contribute?

The advice for edtech companies was cautionary in part and focused a great deal on attending to the specifics of the community college audience. Karp highlighted that “tech is not the whole story. We need to focus on the people side of the apps and on the process of Design, Develop, and Re-design.”

Based on the work Kinvolved has already undertaken in the higher-ed space, Meis suggests that we “design with empathy and understand the student and the context they are operating in.” Their team interviewed over 100 students and counselors to understand their audience better.

“The challenges these students are facing are devastating and the current system is not helping them to rise above,” says Meis. For this reason, their app was designed “with the intention to emotionally connect with a student the best an app can, to boost their social capital, to make their lives a little easier."

Sipley emphasized that the focus be on mobile, that "Community College professors need tools that will both extend the walls of the classroom and enrich the spaces within.” Sipley also suggested using students as resources in developing tools so as to provide them with more meaningful work.

Building Community for Community College Students

One of the main issues raised throughout the evening was the isolation that many community college students feel either due to scheduling realities, the information barrier they confront, or the lack of meaningful advisement.

Meis shared the story of a student raising his siblings because their parents had left them. A developer sitting in the audience next to me told me that his mother never finished community college because of the language barrier.

For Finegold, "far too few talented lower income and first generation college students are making it to our top colleges and universities. Honors programs in community colleges combined with well-designed 2 + 2 transfer pathways can help address this problem, but students need advising help to navigate the system."

It would be great to find a way to bring people whose lives are so challenging and so diverse together so that they could better succeed despite those challenges.

Got an app for that?

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