Learning communities emerge as key element of retention efforts

As community colleges work to improve completion rates for underserved and underprepared students, some are finding that learning communities—when deployed thoughtfully—can make a big difference, writes The Chronicle of Higher Education. The learning community model—small groups of students who are enrolled in courses together and receive additional instruction and mentoring—has been used for decades to give two- and four-year college students an extra layer of social and academic support.

Refining the model

Now, colleges are taking a renewed interest in maximizing the model’s potential to help underprepared students as institutions face mounting pressure to eliminate the long sequences of remedial courses that can derail students’ degree pursuits. While learning communities’ supporters say the small groups help students manage college life, the Chronicle points out that learning communities sometimes “fall flat,” especially when “they’ve been folded into a flurry of reforms without enough faculty training and curricular integration.”

To avoid such pitfalls, San Jacinto College in Texas has designed its one-semester Intentional Connections program around three-course communities, creating common threads across the courses. The program serves San Jacinto’s least-prepared students, providing them with academic advisors who guide their certificate or degree pursuits. According to the college, 86 percent of students who participated in Intentional Connections during the 2017-18 academic year were still enrolled the following semester, and half are still enrolled currently—“a promising retention rate, given where they start out,” the Chronicle writes.

Supporting a larger student-success strategy

Often, learning communities are especially effective in the context of a larger student-success strategy, said Bruce Vandal, senior vice president of Complete College America. Take, for instance, the student-success gains seen in the aftermath of Georgia Perimeter College’s merger with Georgia State University, considered a model for undergraduate support.

Among other initiatives—such as using predictive analytics to identify at-risk students and hiring more advisors—Georgia State introduced learning communities to Perimeter College, mandating participation by every first-year student. The college divided incoming freshmen into groups of around 25 students, who enroll in some of the same courses. The students who have participated in the learning communities earned, on average, a 3.18 grade point average, compared to 3.09 among students who did not, according to Inside Higher Ed. Additionally, learning community members earn more credits and have a greater retention rate.

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