Building for Student Success

Ann M. Pearson

I never cease to be thrilled to see new buildings under construction on campus. Blank spots are filled in and meld into our daily comings and goings. The bare uprights represent growth and vitality framing our mission as well as tangible community support since many new building projects come about through large-scale bond initiatives. Structural change in higher education once meant just this—new buildings to house fresher, technologically advanced classrooms, laboratories, and learning spaces for more and more students. As important as new buildings and infrastructure renovations are to our aging colleges, equally due our notice are less visible internal changes that reform our registration, advising, and instructional practices. These modifications keep our student success mission aligned with our reality.

San Jacinto College was an early adopter of many student-centered practices the national Achieving the Dream (AtD) movement recommends. For example, research proves what faculty have long known: Students who miss early classes in a term often can’t catch up and then are not successful in that class. Students can become frustrated; they waste time and money; and they may also allow this setback to discourage them from moving forward with their plan to complete a degree or certificate.

Working from this data, one AtD idea suggests not letting students register after the first class session. So instead of setting our students up to possibly fail, we set them up to more likely succeed. Not only does this commitment on the part of the college represent a great deal of money students will not be spending on late registration, but also it means we must change our scheduling. We need to offer sections that have different start dates and durations to allow students who may have missed the traditional registration deadline to ease into another section without losing an entire semester. No computer system figures out how many sections to offer and when to offer them in this new mixture of terms starting on different dates. Many creative personnel led by Deans and Department Chairs almost constantly scrutinize enrollments and student needs to maximize faculty, classroom space, and online offerings. Faculty may simultaneously teach classes with numerous start and end dates in one given time period, which demands concentration, agility, and organizational skills akin to ninja warriors.

We are also taking a hard look at all aspects of going to college from a student perspective, including applying, registering, scheduling, deciding on a major, and paying for it all. Between government regulations, vast choices, and the-way-we’ve-always-done-it, the tasks students face just getting into a class section can be exhausting. Add to that factors such as aligning with transfer institutions, negotiating work obligations, and balancing family needs, students are understandably overwhelmed—and this is before classes start! We’re holding on to Thoreau’s wise injunction to “simplify, simplify” when it comes to processes so it becomes a mantra and not a cruel joke.

Working with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Pathways project, all departments and offices are examining the steps and potential barriers students face as they move through our college. We want our students to have options—exploration is an important part of the college experience. On the other hand, we also know that too many choices can be make any process more complex than it needs to be (think of the cereal aisle at the grocery store). We can’t eliminate all the steps, but we can simplify many of them and guide our students deliberately so they can focus on the challenges associated with authentic learning. Instead of throwing up our hands in despair and demanding college-ready students (whatever that means), we’re working diligently to be a student-ready college.

If this creative, broad-based attention to our students were a building, it would be the kind of beautiful, award-winning structure proud neighbors show off to visitors because it represents what’s best about dedicated practitioners focused on one goal—student success.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on December 13, 2016.