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Community college student retention must improve

A 2021 research report on community college student retention shows that about 41% of community college students leave after their first year. WCC’s 39% first-year withdrawal rate is slightly better than average.

There are lots of ways to look at community college student retention. The first-year return rate does not always tell the whole story. The Department of Education’s College Scorecard measures the graduation rate over a period of 8 years. For community college students, that is apt because most attend classes part-time.

And as it turns out, part-time attendance is one of the risk factors for withdrawing from classes without completing a degree or certificate. Full-time students are more likely to complete a degree than part-time students. Part-time students are more likely to be employed and have dependent children, which can establish competing priorities for the student’s time, money, and attention.

The number of credits students take during their first fall semester is also a positive predictor of community college student retention. The more credits a student takes in the fall, the more likely the student will be to complete a degree or credential. Conversely, dropping credits in the first fall semester is a sign of trouble. The more credits a student drops, the less likely the student is to complete his or her program of study.

Other early indicators of successful community college student retention include taking online classes, seeking out student support services, and applying for financial aid.

Community college student retention takes effort.

Paying attention to these early indicators of distress enables institutions to offer support services that allow students to remain enrolled. For example, over an 8-year period at Washtenaw Community College, 53% of part-time students who started their studies at WCC withdrew. That is a lot of turn-over. Granted that does not happen all in one year. WCC’s one-year retention rate is 66%, but that means WCC loses one-third of its new students in any given year.

Losing that many students is expensive. It costs much more to recruit a new student than it does to retain one already enrolled. It also causes the college to spend a lot of time and money on looking elsewhere for students. In WCC’s case, half of its enrolled students come from outside of the district. So, is WCC spending heavily to recruit an ongoing stream of out-of-district students, which it then educates at a discount? (And to no benefit to Washtenaw County, either.)

As a point of comparison, Macomb Community College has an 8-year, 12% withdrawal rate among full-time students, and a 25% withdrawal rate among its part-time students. Three out of every four part-time students at Macomb Community College will either complete a degree, transfer to another institution, or remain enrolled after eight years. Not surprisingly, MCC has the lowest withdrawal rate for both full-time and part-time community college students in Michigan. It is obvious that someone at MCC has put a lot of effort into retaining students.

That happens when someone at a community college prioritizes the best interests of the students and the community.

Photo Credit: Washtenaw Community College , via Flickr