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Community College Focuses on Student Retention

Los Angeles City College (LACC) is just one of California’s 116 two-year public colleges. Founded in 1929, LACC enrolls about 11,500 students each semester. During the pandemic, enrollment dropped an average of 10.5% at the state’s other community colleges. LACC lost virtually none of its students. No one at LACC would say that the school focuses on student retention. Instead, they focus on the students.

LACC is located in Los Angeles, and occupies space where UCLA once operated. They’ve been able to retain their students during the pandemic by focusing on them. Focusing on students means finding out what students need and finding a way to support them. Whether the student needs academic assistance, financial aid, help with housing or groceries, mental health care, academic counseling or something else, LACC delivers. Student retention is just a natural outcome of that approach.

The level of support that LACC students receive is what has kept them in class during the pandemic. But things have not always been easy. Between 2014 and 2018, for example, LACC lost 13% of its students, while other community colleges grew.

LACC President Mary Gallagher came to the college in 2018. Tasked with “the enrollment problem” Gallagher established call centers and chat facilities for students. She refocused the college on customer service and helping students get what they needed when they needed it. In the process, she created an unassailable student retention strategy.

Since many LACC students are first-generation college students, much of LACC’s support consists of academic advising, financial aid counseling and assistance, building soft skills, etc. It also consists of providing social services for students to address health care and other basic needs. Students receive lots of personal communications from the College to make sure they don’t’ fall through the cracks.

Focusing on students drives student retention

And the results have been amazing. A campaign to provide students with the best, most timely services has also provided a blueprint for student retention. Retention is something the college needs most right now.

So, what would have happened if – in 2018 – President Mary Gallagher had decided to take the money meant for students and use it to pay for building construction instead? What if, instead of coming up with strategies to recruit and retain students, she decided that the campus needed “retail outlots” and “mixed-use development?” What if the President of the college had given up on the idea of recruiting more students?

When President Gallagher arrived, LACC was losing students while other California community colleges were gaining enrollment. In just three years, she has not only turned LACC’s enrollment declines around, but she did that during a pandemic.

Simply by using the resources she was given, Gallagher was able to give the students what they need. In the process, she has prevented LACC from losing the students they worked so hard to find.

The difference between LACC and WCC is that one campus has a student-focused strategy and the other does not. One has embraced the mission of the community college and the other has not. One of these campuses will thrive in the next five years, and the other will not.

Giving up on the mission is not leadership.

Photo Credit: UC Davis College of Engineering, via Flickr