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Chabot College Hopes Connection and Support Will Keep Students in School
Posted by Katrina Schwartz, KQED News

About 100 first-year community college students sit around tables with labels reading “Health and Wellness,” “STEM” or “Art and Digital Media,” nervously talking to new friends. It’s only the second week of school and this is a “Meet and Greet” for students who are part of a program called First Year Experience (FYE). They play some icebreaker games and meet the faculty, counselors and peer advisers that will support them through their transition to college.

“I want to share a little story with you before we get today going,” said Gabriel Chaparro, the STEM Center equity director and administrator for the FYE program, as he kicks off the event. “I started school at UC Berkeley and I was there for two years before I was asked to leave because of my GPA.” 

Chaparro explained that he earned good grades in high school, which landed him at Cal, but he didn’t know what it meant to be a college student. He didn’t take advantage of networking opportunities and fell behind in his studies. Eventually he transferred to Chabot College, where he finished his general education credits, before transferring to Cal State East Bay to finish his bachelor's degree.

"I wish I had a faculty member who was close to me. I wish I had someone who had been through school already. I wish, I wish, I wish. You have. That’s what this program is going to help you with.”

 The First Year Experience is a cohort-based program. Students enter broad pathways like “health and wellness” or “science, technology, engineering, and math,” based on their interests entering college. They take two core classes with other students in their cohort. The classes are designed to meet general education requirements, but they’re also meant to provide community, support and career discovery. Students in FYE also have a faculty member they can go to with academic questions, a counselor to help them with other issues, and a peer adviser who can help them navigate issues that come up in college.

All this extra support is an attempt to help students connect with peers and support at Chabot right away. College leaders know that when students immediately feel they belong -- that they have friends and can access help when they need it -- they are more likely to stick with college. That’s important because less than half of community college students in California graduate with a degree, certificate or transfer credits in six years. That’s not fast enough, according to the chancellor’s office.

Students often get lost in a complex system, taking classes that don’t count towards their majors, and spending precious scholarship dollars along the way. A recent study even found that despite the relatively low cost of tuition, community college students often end up paying more for their education than students at four-year universities. California’s Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has said he wants to see significant improvements in completion and transfer rates by 2022, and the state Legislature also recently passed a bill that would tie community college funding to student outcomes.

Chabot’s answer to these challenges is to learn from programs it pioneered the Puente and Umoja programs. These cohort-based initiatives for underrepresented students have a 30-year track record and have been emulated across the state. Now Chabot leaders are building on that success with the First Year Experience program, which doesn’t focus on any specific group but has been a big help for first-generation college students like Shanya Prasad.

"I wasn’t confused. It was just so straightforward,” Prasad said. She recently transferred from Chabot to Cal State East Bay to study psychology. “It was, what do you want to do, these are the classes you have to take. It just made it so much easier for me, being first generation. It was a big help.”

Prasad said without FYE she would have felt lost, not sure of the classes to take or which counselor to go to. She’s heard stories of students getting one set of advice from one counselor and a different set from another. She said the program helped her to “grow into who I want to be and find what my interest was in.”

She entered community college thinking she wanted to be a nurse, mostly because she knew it was a good career and hadn’t heard of many other jobs. But her core classes in the Health and Wellness cohort exposed her to other aspects of medicine. She fell in love with psychology.

Data on the First Year Experience program at Chabot also points to some success. Seventy-four percent of all first-year Chabot students who entered in the fall of 2017 returned for the spring semester, while 92 percent of FYE students did. And even more telling, while 57 percent of all students returned for a second year from 2017-2018, 80 percent of FYE students did. But the program serves only a small portion of the college’s 20,000-student body -- around 250 students.

“We definitely don’t have sufficient funds to scale it up,” said Amy Mattern, dean of academic pathways and student success at Chabot. “If we want to go beyond the 250, to thousands of students, I wouldn’t be able to pay the faculty. I can’t hardly pay the faculty members now.”

Mattern cobbles together funding to pay for the FYE program from a variety of sources. All the participating faculty members and counselors have full course loads, but they are paid an hourly rate for the extra work they do with FYE students. That amounts to somewhere between 1,500-2,500 extra paid hours per year. Additionally, Mattern pays peer advisers for a dozen or so hours per week and has to budget for events, field trips and administrative time. This type of “high touch” program costs money, which makes it hard to scale up.

Still, Chabot leaders are looking for aspects of the program they might be able to expand. Mattern is leading the college's Guided Pathways work, a multiyear planning process meant to reorganize how the college works to make it easier for students to navigate. The chancellor’s office has compiled best practices from around the country and is charging each community college with implementing those practices in ways that make sense for their communities.

“We've been talking a lot about being a student-ready college, not that the students need to be ready for us, but that we, as a college, need to be student-ready,” Mattern said.

This term, “student-ready college,” is getting a lot of play at community colleges right now. The idea is that colleges need to recognize the barriers to success students have and help remove them. Rather than blaming students for not succeeding, the thinking goes, the college needs to change to fit student needs.

Chabot students have to work, take care of siblings, and often only attend school part time. They’re older adults, immigrants learning English for the first time, and low-income students trying to save some money while they get their general education credits.

“That means it's very difficult to be student-ready because everybody is a potential student and it is really hard to tailor,” Mattern said. “So it's a big reach. It is being aspirational. But we also have to do it. These are the students who are coming, and so we have to figure out how to serve them.”

Jennifer Lange, a faculty lead in the STEM pathway for the First Year Experience program, thinks of being student-ready this way:
“It's not just the mind and the class. It's the whole person. And we need to be able to see their whole life and be able to help them figure out how we fit into that life, not how they have to fit into ours.”

A stark example of that is a student she thinks about a lot.

“I had a student who was missing class a lot. But when he was there he was the crackerjack in the class. He was the one who would always ask questions of the guest speaker, he was always the one volunteering to lead something or have the answer. So it was very strange to us. He’s so good, why is he not always here?” Lange wondered.

Partway through the semester, the student came to her office and apologized for missing so much class. He admitted he was addicted to pain pills and was having difficulty navigating the medical system to get help. Lange jumped into action, connecting him to mental health counselors and other support staff she knew.

“I’m trying to take the stress off of them by carrying some of it myself,” Lange said.

She knows it’s not feasible to offer that level of support to all 20,000 Chabot students, but not all students need that level of handholding either. She hopes that through the Guided Pathways work, the college will figure out how to reorient itself into “success teams.” She imagines a team made up of a faculty, counselors, student support personnel, peer advisers and financial aid officers, all of whom are focused on the success of a specific group of students.

It won’t look exactly like FYE -- with its extra social events, cohorted classes and field trips -- but it could offer a basic level of support and structure. After all, they’ve seen that work.


Original article is available at KQED News.