Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Minnesota community colleges try innovative ways to improve retention, completion and transfer rates

From Century College to Normandale, MnSCU’s persistence efforts are paying off: Its first- to second-year retention rate has risen 2 percentage points in the last year.

This is the time of year Inver Hills Community College Vice President Barbara Read stands in the door of the admissions office and greets a new student with a four-word question: “What is your goal?”

The question goes to the heart of the college’s five-year-old “Finish What You Start” effort to improve retention, completion and transfer rates. Whether a student is there for general requirements to transfer to a four-year university, or for an associate’s degree or a certificate, Inver Hills has a message.

Inver Hills Community College
Inver Hills Community College

“From recruitment all the way through to graduation, we want students to know we’re the place that will help you finish what you start,” said Read, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at the 40-year-old college in Inver Grove Heights. “It’s a mantra and an opportunity to build a campus-wide spirit.”

The program, which includes “learning communities” for first-year students and condensed developmental classes, is considered one of the successful persistence initiatives in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, the fifth-largest of its kind in the nation with 25 community and technical colleges and seven universities.

Fine-tuning pilot programs
Other two-year colleges in the MnSCU system are rolling out “student success” programs and fine-tuning pilots as part of a statewide accountability push and a commitment to national efforts like Complete College America.

MnSCU’s first- to second-year retention rate has started to budge, rising 2 percentage points in the last year, said Leslie Mercer, MnSCU’s associate vice chancellor for research, planning and effectiveness. In 2006, Minnesota’s retention rate ranked 26th in the nation.

“That may not sound like a big number but that’s a lot to go up in one year, especially when you think about the fact that we are enrolling more students than ever before and most of that additional enrollment that we’re getting are not students that were already planning to go to college,” Mercer said.

Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., the largest two-year college in the MnSCU system, is requiring new students who test at a pre-college reading level to take a two-credit “New Student Seminar” and to meet with advisers twice a semester for 30 minutes each time.

Improving late enrollers’ chances for success
For the first time this fall, Normandale Community College in Bloomington set an admissions application deadline for new full-time students. Students who registered after Aug. 15 are limited to taking seven credits until the spring term.

“We’ve looked at the data on full-time students who enrolled … at the last minute and have found that their chances for success were very low,” said Matt Crawford, Normandale’s director of admissions.

Normandale found over several years that as many as 60 percent, and as few as 40 percent, of students who applied between Aug. 1 and 14 were placed on probation at the end of the semester, meaning they did not complete 67 percent of their coursework.
“Withdrawals and grades below C were very common,” Crawford said.

These approaches might seem like no-brainers at four-year institutions. But two-year colleges typically offer open-door admission policies and therefore accept students who test at pre-college levels, returning students whose math may be rusty, and immigrants trying to master English as a second language before they can advance to college-level coursework. Minnesota also is home to the largest Somali community outside of Somalia and one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States.

While Minnesota frequently captures the top average ACT composite score in the nation, nearly half of its 2005 high-school graduates who enrolled in the state’s two-year community or technical colleges needed at least one developmental course compared with 29 percent at four-year institutions, according to a MnSCU report. [PDF]

Comparatively high tuition and fees
Compounding the persistence problem is that Minnesota’s tuition and fees (nearly $5,000 for a full-time student) at its two-year public colleges are the third-highest in the nation, according to a 2009-10 ranking [PDF] by the Higher Education Coordinating Board in the state of Washington. Minnesota taxpayers now pick up 46 percent of the cost of tuition vs. two-thirds of the cost 10 years ago, according to MnSCU.

The success efforts are trying to help students get more bang for the buck.

“The majority of entering students do place at the developmental level in math and a much lower percentage in English development classes,” said Read of Inver Hills. “They not only spend extra semesters in college, they also use their financial aid for development classes rather than courses” that would lead to a degree or certificate. One solution: Inver Hills has designed developmental math classes to be completed in one semester instead of two.

So, just how bad is Minnesota’s persistence problem in the two-year colleges?

The state’s first- to second-year retention rate (56.7 percent) ranked 26th in the nation in 2006, lower than the nation’s 58.6 percent, according to a report [pdf] from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The three-year graduation rate of 33.3 percent was 23rd in the U.S., slightly below the nation’s 32.3 percent.

Minnesota’s transfer rate of 20.6 percent, however, was third in the nation, significantly higher than the 13.1 percent national rate. The state’s combined three-year graduation and transfer rate, a key measurement for two-year colleges, was 53.9 percent compared with the nation’s 45.3 percent, placing it fifth in the United States.

Feeling the pressure, but getting some help
As President Obama calls for 8 million more college graduates by 2020, two-year colleges are feeling the pressure in the shadows of universities that have stricter admission policies. At the same time, private foundations like Lumina and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding efforts to help improve access and success for under-represented college students.

Larry Litecky
Larry Litecky

“Clearly, we need to do a better job,” said Century College President Larry Litecky, who serves on the national board of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. “We’re going to take in more and more students so that a greater proportion is experiencing college at the two-year level.”

MnSCU’s 25 two-year colleges enrolled 134,000 students and its seven four-year universities had 63,500 in spring, a 10 percent increase from 2009, according to a report released in spring.

“If you put all the privates together (approximately 48,000 students) with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (nearly 52,000 last fall), we’re [quite a bit] bigger,” Litecky said. “Public policy tends to focus on the research institutions, yet the majority of our students are in the two-year world. I’m not particularly worried about how the top quartile of classes is doing as I am about what’s happening to the rest of the students — and that’s the group that’s being very unsuccessful.”

Positive results from pilot learning communities
Kathy Matel, Century’s “student success coordinator,” aims to change that. She is seeing positive results from Century’s pilot learning communities set up five years ago for pre-college-level or developmental students, a concept pioneered by the John N. Gardener Institute of Excellence in Undergraduate Education (formerly Policy Center on the First Year of College).

Century now has 500 students in 23 learning communities or groups of students taking developmental classes together where their teachers also coordinate the curriculum. For example, a learning community’s reading and writing class and a speech class took on “The American Dream” as a joint theme. Matel says students left with a deeper understanding because they had to read, interpret, write and articulate it.

“Students are in the same courses so they get to know people and have social interaction,” she said. “A learning community helps students make the connection with the college and with each other.”

Century has compared the progress of developmental reading students who were in learning communities and those winging it. The fall-to-fall retention in learning communities was up 20 percent, withdrawal was down 7 percent and the grade point average of students improved to 2.45, Matel said. Developmental students who did not participate posted a 1.89 GPA.

Gathering data to best customize a student’s program
MnSCU’s Mercer expects such data gathering to become an important tool as enrollment continues to grow and state aid shrinks for higher education.

“That’s where we think knowing more about how to customize the work that we do with students to make sure that we’re getting the right kinds of interventions, or the right information, to the right kind of student” will be useful, she said.

Linda Baer, MnSCU’s former vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, liked to compare the potential of the data gathering to’s customer research, Mercer said. (Baer recently left to become a senior officer with the Gates Foundation’s Post-Secondary Success Initiative.)

“If you think about what does when you order a book, they say, ‘People like you who read that book would like these other seven books,’ ” Mercer said. “We’re a ways away from that, but that’s what we’d like to do so that we could say to the student who’s coming in, ‘Oh, people like you who had this kind of experience in high school and want to become a nurse … do best when we do these following things for you, and you do the following things.’ ”

This article was written as part of MinnPost’s partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Columbia University. It is Casey Selix’s last article for The Next Degree; she has taken a new position with Finance and Commerce.