First Days – Planned and Unplanned

The start of a fall semester at college, like the beginning of a lengthy journey, is inherently exciting. New people, new knowledge, new work, and all manner of new experiences beckon. Taking a course is a jump to the future. Enrolling in a degree program is an even greater investment in the future, a projected possibility of a better, educated self. Most students have a special look on opening days, a mixture of optimism, wariness, and concentration. A buzz is in the air. People always ask for directions. And, yes, it is almost always possible to distinguish the new students from the old just by watching how they move about campus.

Community college first days are markedly different from the start of the fall term at a traditional colleges. For four-year institutions, most the back-end business of education for the student is sorted out over the summer. Financial aid packages are finalized, orientation and registration are complete, and ongoing communication over the summer has set expectations and established connections for students. At residential colleges, students have moved in by the start of the term, made friends, and sorted out social groupings.The assimilation of a new students into the academic community is well under way before the first day of the semester. Students embark on a year-long effort and the year begins in autumn. Think of it as a cruise ship. Everyone departs together and the cruise company has come to your house to pack for you.

Community colleges pursue a mission of open access. We serve different kinds of students with different needs. Some students want a degree or certificate.  Others are enrolled at another institution and need a course or two with us. Some students are returning to school to test the waters, unwilling to commit. Other students we see are not sure about what they want and are interested in exploration. We strive to accommodate all – and to do so equally effectively. And as such, first days of term at community colleges are hectic.

For the students who plan and take advantage of early orientation, registration, and support, the transition into community college is smooth. Like most institutions, we see higher levels of academic success and engagement with these students. These are the students who know what they want or are willing to accept a suggested structured pathway. A plan – even a plan that changes – always provides benefit to a student. We also serve students whose lives – and education – are much less ordered.

On the waning days of registration and the first day of the semester, I often spend time outside my college’s financial aid office, talking to students who were waiting to meet with a specialist. Financial aid is always where students’ tension is high. I ask what led the students to the college and the office at the last minute and whether we, the college, could have helped them plan a more orderly (and timely) start to the semester. The answers I receive are consistent across semesters: No. These students have understandable reasons for a last-minute registration and payment. Some of the students are unhappy with financial aid packages at four-year institutions. They find us a late affordable alternative. Some have personal or work-related challenges with delayed or deferred timely registration and planning. For others, the start of the semester forced the decision to attend college, a scary and worthwhile goal. And for more than a few students, coming up with tuition was a responsibility and costs that was rationally pushed back as long as possible.

What these last minute students do not realize is that their last minute actions identify them to us as being increasingly at risk. The correlation between last minute enrollment and poor academic performance is a basic institutional research study at every college I have worked. The less that a student is able to plan and execute a registration and payment, the more likely the student will receive poor grades or drop out. This is not necessarily a question of fault or ability. Last minute students face challenges with time, money and opportunity that are present in their lives consistently, not just at the start of a semester. These hurdles are often difficult to overcome.

The metaphor of education as a journey is powerful. For community colleges, think of an airport or a train station. Our mission is to educate quickly and inexpensively, moving students to their goals, be it a four-year institution or a job. Some voyagers come to us prepared and some do not. When traveling, spontaneity can be exciting and lead to new discoveries. When it comes to education, however, planning consistently guarantees better outcomes.

David Potash

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