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The Freshman

Santa Fe Community College has a plan for reversing first-year student dropout rates—but can a local institution overcome a national epidemic?

April 6, 2011, 1:00 am

Ron Liss, SFCC’s vice president for academic and student affairs, says it’s up to the community college to bridge the gap for academically underprepared students—even if the problems start in elementary school.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

Ron Liss, SFCC’s vice president for academic and student affairs, says it’s tempting to blame the academic achievement gap on high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools. But it’s also the result of systemic changes in American education, he says—changes that have left many students stranded in the middle.

“Why aren’t they prepared? We never designed them to be prepared,” Liss, who has also conducted academic research on education systems, tells SFR. “When colleges were created and high schools were created, there was never an intent to link the two.”

Whereas a high school diploma was once enough to land a reasonably high-paying job, Liss says, now an associate’s degree is the bottom-line prerequisite for most occupations.

“So all of a sudden, you needed to make that leap—but we didn’t make the system, at the same time, prepare the easy transition,” Liss says.

Changing an entire education system takes years, he says—so it’s often up to community colleges to bridge the achievement chasm.

“That’s where we’ve developed these developmental programs that say, ‘We can fill in that gap,’” Liss explains. “We’re going to try and get there.”

In fall 2009, 64 percent of incoming SFCC students—and 69 percent of Hispanic students—were enrolled in at least one developmental course.

Though that speaks to the college’s efforts to bring unprepared students up to speed, Liss says, the developmental courses also lead to unintended consequences.

“The students that spend any significant amount of time in developmental classes prior to being in college [courses] have very little chance of ever graduating,” Liss tells SFR. “If they start in our lowest-level courses, I can almost guarantee you that they will not graduate. Their financial aid runs out; other things get in the way; they have more of a chance of getting sidetracked.”

In part, he says, that’s because developmental courses often have nothing to do to with the real reason most students decide to go to college.

“We put them in things that they don’t care about,” Liss explains. “If I want to learn about biofuels, but I have to go through two years of developmental [coursework] before I take my first biofuels course, my chance of ever being motivated to get there is taken away.”

It’s also discouraging, he says, to spend entire semesters in developmental classes that cost the same amount of money as other classes but don’t count toward a degree or certificate.

Around 2005, Liss says, SFCC administrators began to notice that the developmental courses sometimes had a counterproductive effect on retention and student success—and they started brainstorming.

They realized, Liss says, “that we really need to do more than just these small, little pieces. We need a whole experience that the student would go through during their first year—what we call a First Year Experience.”

Over the course of 2011, Liss’ brainchild will become a reality. Drangmeister is in the process of hiring six staff members to run the program, including a director, a curriculum specialist, two advisers, an administrative assistant and a data analyst.

Drangmeister hopes to “have all the pieces in place” by April 18, the beginning of pre-registration for fall and summer courses at SFCC, so that a full-fledged First Year Experience will be in place for students who start their studies this fall.
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