The image of a community college needs to be one of not just affordability, but one of exploration and advancement in educational culture as well.
A look at several of the surrounding high schools in the area provides a glimpse of the challenges new students have to face when they make the transition from high school to college.
Of those who responded to surveys for the state’s accountability progress reporting, 55 percent of parents at Foothill High School in Sacramento have never set foot in a college classroom.
The number is similar for Highlands High School, except a full 25 percent of those parents didn’t finish high school.
Those numbers seem to be average for the surrounding school districts. Even Mira Loma, which boasts a full third of parents with graduate degrees, still has a significant contingency – 35 percent – that either never started or never finished college.
The percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch (an indicator of the family’s income) for Foothill, Highlands and Mira Loma are 79, 86 and 40 percent, respectively.
Although both income and parental educational level are the two main indicators of socioeconomic status, it is clear from a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, among others, that the most important factor in a child’s educational success is the parents’ education levels – even more so than the parents’ income level.
So there may be a freshman class at American River College where a large number of the students are the first in their family to attend college, and may have to work to support themselves or their families while they are in school.
We should not be too worried about the three-year graduation rates, the preferred indicator of community college success, with a student body such as this.
In fact, many argue that six years, let alone six semesters, may not be enough time for some community college students to earn a degree, even if they are enrolled every semester.
Part-time students taking and doing well in six units each semester will take over five years to finish a 70-unit associate’s degree. This should still be considered success if they finish.
What should be focused on is the persistence rate of students, or the rate at which students continue to enroll in courses from one semester to the next. As long as students are doing well in their classes and are continuing to enroll in more classes, even if not all of those classes lead to a degree, that student is successful.
The persistence rates for first time freshmen at ARC is about 74 percent, according to the latest data available on the ARC website, an improvement from 70 percent four years before, and course completion rates are about the same.
The problem is that the older that students get, the less likely they are to return the following semester. For students age 30-39, the persistence rate drops to 56.5 percent.
We should be doing whatever we can to keep students interested in higher learning, and to keep them enrolled in classes, even when the road seems long.
Perhaps part of the answer is iSEPs, the new electronic version of the student education plan. Perhaps it is encouraging campus involvement and fostering school pride. Perhaps it is better access to financial aid or less expensive textbooks or better access to counselors. Perhaps it is all of these things.
In addition to these things, it will require a bit of patience, so that students who may not have had an encouraging learning environment in high school will get the time they need to acclimate to the responsibilities, freedoms and challenges of college life, and to explore who they want to become.