Simplifying Complexity in the Student Experience: A Tool to Help Colleges Devise and Implement Relatively Low-Cost Solutions

Shanna Smith Jaggars, Jeffrey Fletcher
Innovation Showcase

Community colleges serve a huge variety of students--traditional and nontraditional, daytime and evening, part-time and full-time, as well as career- and academic transfer-oriented. To meet the wide-ranging needs of their student population, they offer a complex variety of programs and courses. This vast range of choices can be confusing for students, and can result in students making unexamined decisions that may waste their time and money or divert them from a promising academic or career path.

Community colleges want to better help students navigate the wide range of choices they face, yet because they operate within significant financial constraints,  they often have student-counselor ratios that exceed 1,000:1. In response to this dilemma, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) has recently released a practitioner packet, Simplifying Complexity in the Student Experience. This packet is designed to help colleges identify areas where students struggle due to excessive complexity in the process of intake, orientation, and course selection, and devise and implement relatively low-cost solutions that can improve the student experience.

The practitioner packet is based on work CCRC conducted at and with Macomb Community College, a large comprehensive suburban community college outside of Detroit. In 2011, Macomb leaders--suspecting that overly complex intake and registration systems were hindering students from making optimal course, program, and transfer choices--embarked on a redesign effort to help simplify academic decision-making for students.

The packet breaks down the process of exploratory research, reform implementation, and refinement so that other colleges can undertake similar redesigns. Part one describes data-gathering methods colleges can use to help them understand how students experience intake, orientation, registration, advising, and the overall process of academic decision-making. Part two illustrates how colleges can use these data to identify areas of confusion, and engage stakeholders in devising and implementing solutions. Part three explains how to evaluate redesigned processes and procedures in order to assess their impact and further refine them. Part four is an appendix that includes data collection and project management materials. Throughout the packet, Macomb Community College is referenced to demonstrate how this process played out in a real community college setting.

CCRC hopes that this packet will give colleges both a vision of the possible, and the tools they need to embark on changes that can significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the academic decision-making process for students. In a companion report, CCRC examines additional possibilities for low-cost improvements to help students navigate college, including simplifying program and transfer structures, more explicitly teaching students how to self-advise, and leveraging online e-advising tools to make advisors' work more in-depth, effective, and efficient.

Shanna Smith Jaggars is the Assistant Director and Jeffrey Fletcher is a Senior Research Assistant at Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.