Reducing Complexity for Students: A Tool to Help Colleges Implement Low-Cost Solutions

Group of Students

Community colleges serve a huge variety of students: traditional and nontraditional, daytime and evening, part-time and full-time, those seeking short-term career-technical credentials, and others who intend to transfer to four-year colleges. To meet the wide-ranging needs of this unique student population, community colleges offer a complex array of programs and courses. When students enroll at community colleges they therefore face a broad range of course, program, and degree options that can be confusing or overwhelming. Faced with so many choices, students often make unexamined decisions that can waste their time and money or divert them from a promising academic or career path.

Community colleges want to help students better navigate the wide range of choices they face, yet because they operate within significant financial constraints, they often have student-counselor ratios that exceed 1,000 to 1. In response to this dilemma, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) has recently released a practitioner packet, Simplifying Complexity in the Student Experience. This packet is designed to help community colleges identify areas where students struggle due to excessive complexity in intake, orientation, and registration, and to aid them in devising and implementing relatively low-cost solutions that can improve the student experience.

The practitioner packet is based on work CCRC conducted at and with Macomb Community College, a large comprehensive suburban community college outside of Detroit. In 2011, Macomb leaders—suspecting that an overly complex intake and registration system was hindering students from making optimal course, program, and transfer choices—embarked on a redesign effort to simplify students’ academic decision-making processes.

The packet breaks down the process of exploratory research, reform implementation, and refinement so that other community colleges may undertake similar redesigns. In part one, we describe data-gathering methods community colleges can use to help them understand how students experience intake, orientation, registration, advising, and the overall process of academic decision-making. In part two, we illustrate how community colleges can use this data to identify areas of confusion, and engage stakeholders in devising and implementing solutions. In part three, we explain how to evaluate redesigned processes and procedures in order to assess their impact and further refine them. Part four is an appendix that includes data collection and project management materials.  Throughout the packet, Macomb community college is used as an example to demonstrate how this process played out in a real community college setting.

We hope this packet will both give community colleges a “vision of the possible,” and the tools they need to embark on changes that can significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the academic decision-making process for students. In a companion report, we also discuss additional possibilities for low-cost improvements to help students navigate community college, including simplifying program and transfer structures, more explicitly teaching students how to self-advise, and leveraging online e-advising tools to help advisors’ work more in-depth, effectively, and efficiently.

Shanna Smith Jaggars is the assistant director and Jeffrey Fletcheris a  senior research assistant at Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.


Photo credit: Flickr

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