How to Help Students Who Are at Risk of Dropping Out

How to Help Students Who Are at Risk of Dropping Out
Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant via AP

Community colleges are often all things to all people, as is the case with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City, Michigan, where I teach. Our students come and go as their circumstances change. And, sometimes, they fall through the cracks. Nationally, around half of students that begin postsecondary education do not finish, but the picture the media typically paints is inaccurate. While student under-preparedness and the high cost of college are reasons for non-completion, the reality on the ground is much more nuanced. Faculty see this firsthand every day and are actively working to do our part to end higher ed’s leaky pipeline by addressing the real issues that prevent students from completing college.

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My classroom reflects our regional population; the age of my students ranges from 16 to 55. Most work over 20 hours each week and some come to class after working the third shift. On average, one-third of my students are parents. Each semester my classroom reflects our institutional average of 10% to 15% student-veterans who currently or previously served in the military. While most of my students are white, a significant number identify as Native American (members of our region’s Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) and Hispanic, in part, reflecting our agricultural economy.

Our institution has many of the standard academic and support services found across campuses. We provide tutoring, a testing center, and walk-in access to academic advisors and counselors. We also provide success coaches who help students with “soft skills” like study tips and time management. All of these services address the academic needs of students, yet do not focus on the most common reasons students drop out. Since coming to NMC, I have been part of a renewed effort to address those reasons.

In the last three years, we have taken a hard look at our completion rates and have identified many challenges to student completion. We found that many of the barriers are not academic in nature. Instead, basic needs like access to housing, transportation, childcare, and food insecurity prevent our students from finishing. We are actively working to remove and lessen these barriers. The complex reasons behind drop outs are not captured in the statistics collected by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). We know we cannot remove all the barriers that our students face, but we can address the challenges and adjust our practices and classrooms to alleviate their impact.

Back to Basics
Small changes in student support services are having a large impact on our students’ successes. Without support, our students’ hurdles and stumbling blocks can overwhelm them. With support, we can directly address the root causes of some of their stressors and help them continue in their studies.

Nationally, 43% of students experience food insecurity. In November 2017, we opened a campus food pantry. Students fill out requests online and pick up their food orders in our library. The process mimics other pick-up processes and is done with discretion, dignity, and respect. In 2018, 1,087 of our 4,200 students used our online pantry system.

Thanks to a small micro-grant from Thrivent, my department provides “snack baskets” to help address the hunger we see in our classroom. Each class, the basket is passed around and students take something if they choose, with some taking a bit extra ‘for the road’. The $250 grant is a small investment in our students’ success.

Parenting, Family, and the College Experience
Demonstrating our support for parents who are also students can be the difference between completion and dropping out. Snow days, inclement weather, and co-parenting challenges pop up. We address these school-life balance issues on the first day of class.  In these cases, I encourage my students to bring their children to class. While some systems choose to explicitly limit children in learning environments, we are moving in a different direction. I set up a play area in a back corner so that children are occupied while we learn. Parents also reinforce the importance of education to their children implicitly through these actions.

Childcare is expensive. A few years ago, NMC partnered with our local hospital system which now manages childcare and a Great Start Readiness Program on campus. Students and employees now have safe, affordable care for our children while we are in class.

All Hands on Deck
Small changes create big results. My students’ successes are the result of the collective approach of my institution. A veteran’s liaison helps with the transition into civilian and academic life. Campus counselors connect students with mental health services both on campus and in the community. Student Life provides public transit cards to students with short-term transportation issues. Our library has every textbook available for use (for free), one way of addressing the high cost of textbooks. And, this year, our library began providing cellular wireless hotspots — allowing students without internet at home free access for seven days per check out. 

This month, the Michigan Community College Association was awarded a grant of $442,000 from the ECMC Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative. We, along with other state community colleges, will work together to explore ways to best address our students’ needs. Anecdotally, we know the positive outcomes of the programs we have put into place and these efforts can be replicated on other campuses. In times when organizations try to standardize programs, I have seen firsthand how our personal approach to helping students has increased college persistence and success.  As part of the Michigan — Building Economic Stability Today (MI-BEST) effort, NMC will continue to collect and share our data with peer institutions, and work to share our ‘best practices’ across our state-wide system. We are making it work in Michigan. It is time for other colleges across the nation to take action to address the reasons our students do not complete their degrees.

As our community’s college, we keep our focus on the future. We are doing our part to fill the cracks and stop the leaky pipeline, assuring a greater future for our students, graduates, community, and region. I believe in what we do at NMC. I hope that other institutions follow our lead to support students where and when they need it most.

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