The Soft Side of Retention: Ways to Engage With Community College Students and Develop Their Best Possible Selves
December 2012, Volume 15, Number 12
By Patricia M. Konovalov
In order to best assist students, we must first be aware of the challenges they must overcome in order to achieve their higher education goals. Community college students are more likely than those at a four-year college or university to have completion risk factors for a myriad of reasons. They include lack of preparation, delayed entry to college after high school, first generation college participation, part-time college attendance, full time work while attending college, dependents at home, and single parenthood. These students may also lack some of the personal conditions that contribute to success, such as dependable child care, employer flexibility, support from family and friends, counseling, and public assistance. Additionally, institutional barriers such as an unwelcoming environment, language barriers, instructors who are inexperienced with diverse students, racial stereotyping, lack of adequate and accessible financial aid, and difficulty in gaining necessary information may impede their success (Myran, 2009). However, there are ways that we can build cultures in our colleges that encourage retention. One way is through the use of relationships to build the best possible self of each of our students.
What can we do at community colleges to help students develop their best possible selves? Staff should consider the interpersonal connections available to community college students which ultimately promote the full potential of the individual. Possible selves are the personal ideas which lie latent within individuals. They involve unrealized or undiscovered dreams of improved career goals, social status, and life conditions. According to Marcus and Nurius, possible selves are representations of the self in possible future states. They give specificity, direction, and imagery to the goals, aspirations, or fears that individuals may have. Markus and Nurius suggest that people who keep the possible self operating in the forefront of their working self-concept are more likely to achieve their desired goals. Individuals hold an array of potential self conceptions based on their past experiences, socio-cultural life context, and current situation. This concept encompasses both culturally determined and self-constructed aspects of the self (Markus & Nurius as cited in Rossiter, 2007). When working with adults, education is about possibilities including financial self-sufficiency, personal growth, career advancement, empowerment, self-worth, and transformation.
Research suggests that possible selves are influenced by the social groups one identifies with and psychological well-being is derived from group-derived efficacy—the belief that belonging to a group will help one achieve a hoped-for self. Students should be encouraged to explore various aspects of the self; the student benefits from different perspectives of the possible selves (Cameron as cited in Rossiter, 2007). Many adult learners are in the process of exploring new possibilities for themselves, and faculty and advisors can facilitate that exploration.
Community college employees can help students explore their possible selves in numerous ways. Possibilities can be explored through educational relationships. Sometimes a comment or suggestion from an instructor can plant the seed that creates a new possibility not previously considered by the student. An instructor may also awaken or reactivate a goal that a learner considered unattainable. This is often the case with students who experience setbacks or who have had little positive feedback from key support people in the past. “But the combination of incremental success, perseverance, and focused encouragement from a teacher or mentor can enable a student to resurrect a lost possible self” (Rossiter, 2007, p. 11).
Educational relationships also serve to strengthen the student’s confidence in the possible selves. The relationships usually involve an instructor detailing a possible self, thus enabling the student to form a more elaborate picture of that possibility. It is essential that the instructor identify goals and specific strategies for achieving short-term goals that will lead them to their new possible self. Students must also be made aware of potential barriers and setbacks, and be prepared with strategies to deal with them should they arise. Positive and practical feedback from instructors or mentors is a strong force that can strengthen the sense of efficacy for an adult learner (Rossiter, 2007). The results of this supportive encouragement can be evidenced by the student’s persistence in college and achievement of their educational goal/s.
Theory in Action
One of the most widely used conceptual frameworks regarding persistence and completion is that of Tinto (1993). This framework suggests that administrators and faculty should try to foster the academic and social engagement of their students within their colleges. Pascarella and Terenzini’s classic work also confirms that higher levels of student interaction with faculty lead to higher levels of academic integration and, therefore, greater likelihood of persistence (1978). These researchers’ theories have stood the test of time and their work continues to be important for students of the 21st century.
Students are more likely to stay connected to the college when they have bonded with faculty and/or staff. They are also more apt to achieve their educational goals (Tinto, 1993). Tinto asserts that essential elements for student success include a student’s sense of belonging and support within the college environment, their willingness to attend the college again, and their overall satisfaction with their college experiences (Tinto, 1993).
The Soft, Underside of Institutions
When you think about your own educational experience, was there something or someone at your educational institution that helped keep you coming back? What was it? A faculty member with whom you bonded? An advisor or counselor who helped guide and support you? A student mentor with whom you could relate? Or, did your educational institution have many people who reached out to help you feel welcome? Were you encouraged by someone in particular? Did someone help you develop into a direction that you never considered exploring? Daily we have opportunities to help guide students as they explore alternatives that are available through higher education.
A former student of mine from an individualized learning center recently shared a powerful insight. She said, “You know, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have come back. You encouraged me, you helped me, and you kept me moving me along.” This student was a first-generation student, had young children at home, and had many of the identified barriers to college completion. My encouragement and hope for her future resonated within her. She said that she came back because she didn't want to disappoint me. She let me help her work through the challenges she faced. Our relationship kept her engaged at the college; it helped her persevere. The engagement that this student felt may have been the key to her persistence. Being attentive to the needs of each and every student can help them feel connected and engaged.
Do the people who work at your college exude, “Welcome! I am here to help!”? Many people who work at community colleges are known for their passion and commitment to assisting students along their educational path. This author recommends an institutionally encouraged culture: “Welcome, I'm here to help you.” This should be the motto of all community college employees. Taking the time to be kind to people seems very simple; however, we may be giving our students exactly what they need to stay with us and complete their educational goals.
Excellent service for students is the result of intentional planning and monitoring by campus leaders. Creating welcoming environments can also go far. By having offices that invite students to sit, relax, and talk, we are sending them a message that they matter and are worth our time. Having indirect lighting also helps to remove the institutional chill. These and many other techniques can help create a feeling of welcome and show the students that they are important to us.
Service From the Heart
How can community colleges move in this direction? As Danley (2008) notes, institutions have to work toward creating a culture of helpfulness. As pressures and performance expectations continue to increase in our colleges, it is no wonder that one occasionally encounters rude or discourteous employees. We should be particularly sensitive of the way we treat our students. We all have heard about how difficult it is for students to come through our doors in the first place. We should not give them good reasons to exit our doors due to unpleasant encounters. "Student persistence is a function of the quality of relationships between the student and other actors within the college and their home community…" (Schreiner, Louis, & Nelson, 2012, p. xv). If a student receives a sharp response from a faculty or staff member and they're barely coping with their responsibilities, it may just be the final factor in their decision to leave the institution. Supportive feedback and understanding comments can go a long way in helping students continue on their educational journeys.
Institutions that assist students to thrive often design interventions through faculty development efforts, advising, and excellent curriculum design. They also work to normalize the help-seeking process on campus so that students feel comfortable accessing resources and learning effective strategies for success during transitions (Schreiner, Louis, & Nelson, 2012). Excellent service is contagious and can be developed as part of the work culture of our community colleges.
While we look to our leaders, the office manager, the Registrar, the Dean, and the President for cues on tone and substance in our work environments, each one of us can take the responsibility to set the tone of our own work. (Danley, 2008, p. 1)
Times of transition can be opportunities for great growth. They can be positive experiences that involve movement toward one’s full potential (Goodman, Schlossberg, & Anderson, 2006). Kay McClenney, from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement Project (2012), in a recent video lecture noted that their organization has interviewed thousands of students about engagement. When students were asked about what kept them coming back when they wanted to give up, overwhelmingly, the students mentioned a person. Each day we have the opportunity to be that person for one of our students. While we cannot modify many of the completion risk factors of our students, each day we can practice the soft side of retention. Through educational relationships, we can facilitate exploration and development of the best possible selves of our students.
Danley, J. (2008, June). Providing excellent student services on a shoestring. PACRAO. Retrieved from http://www.pacrao.org/docs/resources/writersteam/ProvidingExcellentStudentServicesonaShoeString.pdf
Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. &Anderson, M. (2006). Counseling adults in transition: Linking practice with theory. New York, NY: Springer.
McClenney, K. (2012). What matters most [video]. Community College Survey of Student Engagement. Retrieved from http://myhomepage.ferris.edu/~kono3/mcclenney/
Mullin, C. M. (2011, October). The road ahead: A look at trends in the educational attainment of community college students (Policy Brief 2011-94PBL). Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.
Myran, G. (2009). Student success in the new open-door community college. In G. A. Myran (Ed.), Reinventing the open door: Transformational strategies for community colleges (pp. 45-55). Washington, DC: Community College Press.
Rossiter, M. (2007, Summer). Possible selves: An adult education perspective. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 114, 5-15.
Schreiner, L.A., Louis, M.C., & Nelson, D.D. (Eds.). (2012). Thriving in transitions: A research-based approach to college student success. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Patricia M. Konovalov is a graduate assistant in the Community College Leadership Program at Ferris State University in Michigan.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.
Rhonda Mason wrote on 12/04/12 8:49 AM
We have been talking about retention and the poblems our students endure at home or in the past, and this article ariculated our concerns and gave me ideas on how to help them. I am going to share it with my staff andfaculty. Thank you
Julie wrote on 12/05/12 4:34 PM
This article is inspiring. If I can't create community in my classroom, I have lost the potential for students to achieve to their optimum ability.
Thank you for the kind comments. Taking the time to help students explore options is time well invested, in my opinion.