Getting a Bigger Bang for Your Buck: How Community Colleges Can Get the Most Out of Student Support Services

As community college administrators and faculty know all too well, getting through college takes more than academic preparation.  Students often face barriers unrelated to academic skills that may prevent them from completing college. Some of these barriers are obvious and concrete – such as transportation or childcare difficulties.  Others are more subtle: students may find the college bureaucracy bewildering, they may have poor time-management skills, or have no sense of when and how to seek help.

Colleges have developed a range of support programs and activities that are geared towards helping students overcome these barriers. Some popular approaches include enhanced advising, learning communities, and student success courses. These activities and programs tend to be short—usually lasting no longer than one semester early in a student’s college career.  Research suggests that, unfortunately, their benefits also tend to fade quickly.

Many college administrators are frustrated at the limited impact support services tend to have and are seeking ways to improve them, even in light of tight budgets and limited personnel. In response to this frustration, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) has developed a “practitioner packet”—What We Know About Nonacademic Student Supports— that suggests changes colleges can make that may result in longer-term impacts on student success. These changes constitute an approach to student supports we term SSIP: Sustained, Strategic, Intrusive and Integrated, and Personalized.  

The SSIP approach acknowledges that a one-time inoculation of support upon entry to college is not enough to impact long-term student success. Instead, support activities must be sustained so that they are easily accessible as students encounter challenges later in their postsecondary pathway.  However, colleges have constrained budgets and in order to provide sustained supports they must be strategic about how to distribute resources according to student need. Colleges can streamline support services and use existing resources more effectively by offering rigorously implemented success courses and a well-designed online advising system, and by differentiating when and how students receive services.

The SIPP approach also takes into account the fact that students don’t always seek out help when they need it. Support services must therefore be made intrusive to ensure students encounter supports even when they don’t actively pursue them.  Supports can be made intrusive by requiring participation in orientations and success courses, making advising mandatory, and having advisors proactively contact students who are struggling, or who are approaching critical junctures in their college pathway.

Furthermore, support activities can be integrated into students’ academic experience by assigning advisors to particular programs of study and locating their offices within academic departments; by having an academic dean oversee student success courses; and by bringing support staff and academic faculty together in professional development activities focused on contextualizing nonacademic skill building in academic settings.

Finally, students have differing levels of need when it comes to supports and thus support services should be personalized.  Personalizing services to fit student needs can also help colleges make more efficient use of resources. For instance, many colleges currently treat all incoming students in the same way.  New students take placement exams and then meet with an advisor to select courses before the start of the semester.

Instead, colleges might include mandatory student surveys about academic and career goals as part of the intake process. Undecided students can be assigned to an advisor for a more prolonged intervention. Decided students can be directed to an online system, or to a success course. However, even these more self-sufficient students should be contacted by advisors as they reach crucial junctures, such as when they are registering for their second year, when their choices appear to stray from a designated major, and when they are approaching 15 credits from completion.

For colleges to take the SSIP approach, it is important that they take advantage of the efficiencies of student success courses and online advising so that more resources can be devoted to students who need more protracted advising, and to students who are further along on their college path. For such an approach to be effective, these more efficient services must be well-designed and rigorously implemented.  Parts two and three of our practitioner packet are devoted to the question of how advising services and student success courses might be designed to contribute more meaningfully to long-term student success.

Melinda Mechur Karp is a Senior Research Associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

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