PHENIX CITY, Ala. (AP) — A decade after dropping out, Briana Mathis, a 30-year-old mother of two, is navigating her first year back at Wallace Community College.
She was recruited back to the school in Dothan, Alabama, by the staff at a new student support center. The same adviser has kept her on track by helping her appeal a financial aid decision and checking in regularly on her progress.
“I definitely needed the guidance, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the guidance,” Mathis said.
Two-year community colleges, which serve many of the students who need the most support, have the lowest completion rates of any kind of university or college. The availability of advisers, students say, is often a deciding factor in who succeeds.
In Alabama, a number of community colleges have sought new ways to help students through whatever life and academic challenges come up until they graduate.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
At Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, the Strategies to Enhance New Student Engagement program, or SENSE, has counselors reach out to students who are in remedial classes, on academic probation, or in need of extra support for other reasons. The program is supported by a five-year, $1.8 million federal grant.
“We lose a lot of students because they don’t think they have solutions to their problems,” SENSE project coordinator Alisha Miles said.
Nationally, about 36% of community college students who enrolled in 2018 graduated within three years. In Alabama, the rate is about 30%.
At Chattahoochee Valley, students say the new program has helped them cross the finish line in ways big and small.
Alaysha Hill, a first-year transfer student, said a success coach helped her turn her grades around after a rocky transition. Another student, Cortez Rawlins, said he was struggling in one of his courses until a coach helped him come up with a detailed study plan.
The goal, Miles said, is for coaches to stick with students until they get a job or transfer successfully, and to help them overcome barriers along the way — be they transportation issues, lack of money for books or a lack of family support.
“We’re trying to interject or put ourselves in the middle of those obstacles so that we can see higher completion rates,” she said. “But it’s still a difficult task because we’re fighting against a lot of things. Sometimes it’s personal issues that keep people from moving forward, and sometimes it could be financial, or it could be that they just can’t do it, and they just stop.”
Not all community colleges offer so much support, said Linda García of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. A 2022 CCCSE report found that nationally, 53% of students said an adviser helped them to set academic goals and create a plan for achieving those goals.
Jahnelle Congress, a first-year student at Lawson State Community College, said she needed help determining a major but her school’s advising line never responded to her emails or in-person requests.
“You need an adviser to help you figure out those things, and to not have that is kind of tough,” she said.
Resources for more robust advising services are often scarce, experts say.
“Funding is by far the biggest limitation to quality community college advising, and this includes being able to staff advising experts in the evenings and weekends, or at a distance, which is when and how many community college students are able to attend classes,” said Deryl Hatch-Tocaimaza, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
While Alabama’s community colleges mostly operate independently, they can share some funding and programming system-wide.
This spring, Alabama community college system leaders are working on new statewide measures to retain students, including appointment scheduling and a “student success scoring” system, which would help identify students who need help early, rather than waiting until they ask.
But it’s ultimately up to individual colleges to decide what type of support they need, said Ebony Horton, a spokesperson for the system.
Technical schools, for example, may be more focused on hiring career coaches, while other institutions may have more students who need help transferring. Sometimes instructors take on advising roles, too, she said.
In her first year at Chattahoochee Valley, Oryanan Lewis failed three classes as she struggled with a chronic illness. She nearly lost her financial aid and likely would have had to quit, she said, without intervention. The new team of success coaches developed a plan to maintain grades she’d need to keep her scholarship. The medical assisting student is now approaching graduation.
“If I didn’t go in there and get the information and the support that I had, I don’t think I would be where I’m at now,” she said. “I most definitely don’t think I would have been in school still.”