“I Couldn’t Get to Campus, Buy the Book, Access the Web:” Looking Beyond the Excuses

“I Couldn’t Get to Campus, Buy the Book, Access the Web:” Looking Beyond the Excuses

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College

Community Campus, Community Challenges

Open access was not a foreign concept to me when I stepped into an administrative position at a large, urban community college. Previous to my current position, I had faced challenges serving the masses at an open access regional campus of a public research institution. Through this experience, I became accustomed to motivating students with low placement scores, identifying resources for low-income students, and helping students remove the barriers that initially stood in between them and academic success. In fact, this type of challenging student affairs work was precisely the reason I zoned in on community college opportunities when the time came to take the next professional step.

Now, two years after taking that step, I find myself less and less prepared to handle the issues brought to me through the open gateway. The reason for this sense is not due to incompetence, or a lack of understanding of student barriers in open access institutions. Rather, student stories have become deeper and more complex as I have learned to ask a few more questions, and no longer settle for short, simple answers. Suddenly, the student who has been dropped for non-attendance is not just a lazy, unmotivated student in need of more academic advising. The dismissed student pleading her case to the Academic Review Board may not be just another student who did not bother to access tutoring, and the student struggling to make ends meet did not necessarily misuse his or her financial aid package.

The community college environment does not provide student support professionals the luxury of focusing conversations solely on academics, and professionals entering the two year college environment should consider this component carefully. Our students’ lives are intertwined with their educational experience in unique ways the traditional student experience may not reflect. While the traditional student joins his or her peers in rituals such as purchasing extra-long twin sheets, packing for overnight orientations, and anticipating roommate assignments, a significant number of community college students jump headfirst into their education without laying the appropriate foundation to be successful. In many ways, community college students are often extraordinary time managers, weaving class in with multiple jobs, children, and other complexities. In other ways, community college students are regularly only one misstep away from watching the carefully constructed tower come tumbling down.

Removing the Invisible Barriers

The individuals on the Academic Advising team I supervise genuinely enjoy student interactions, often stating that the conversation surrounding the structure of course planning, grade point averages, and deadlines is what keeps them motivated to continue working with a tough community college population. Often, when an Advisor has become unmotivated or overwhelmed, I find myself reminding them to take the time to really view each student as a story and to ask probing questions to find the real reason a student may be succeeding or struggling. When working with students this way, however, Advisors and other student affairs professionals need to be prepared for what may be revealed by the student.

Recently, a distressed student arrived in our office just before the end of walk-in hours. She had been dropped from classes in the fourth week of the term due to non-attendance, a routine scenario by any Advisor’s standards. Rather than launching into the steps by which the student could be re-enrolled, or referring to another office, the student was prompted for more information. Ultimately, the student revealed she had been enrolled in online course sections, though a recent change in her living situation had prevented her from accessing her online materials. Likewise, the student’s un-enrolled status would shortly impact her financial situation as well, and she feared an eviction notice would be arriving next.

While this situation may seem extreme to some, it is all too common in a community college setting where student success often hinges delicately upon fragile life circumstances. Within a setting that often serves as the first rung towards upward mobility, students’ lives are not always stabilized enough to support academic focus. However, open access to education provides students in dire life circumstances with a pathway to realistically transform hope into tangible progress.

In many community college settings, student affairs departments take on unexpected roles as basic need providers. As stories of hunger, lack of transportation, homelessness, and financial distress surface during advising appointments, financial aid interactions, and student life activities, the College is often faced with a decision to respond or turn a blind eye. Strategic student success conversations only scratch a superficial surface if these issues are not discussed.

In Ohio, the Ohio Benefits Bank provides individuals access to a network of public assistance programs and community resources. Individuals in need of food, cash, medical, or utilities assistance can apply for support programs via a central application process, and any individual in the community can obtain certification to assist individuals in navigating this process. Last academic year, our College employed an AmeriCorps VISTA, housed in Student Life, who served our student population in this role. When the VISTA service year concluded, the gap in services was apparent. Without somewhere to send a student in need, many student affairs offices and faculty struggled to connect students to resources to meet basic food, shelter, clothing, and transportation needs.

In order to attempt to build a student basic needs support network on campus, I recently helped to organize an Ohio Benefits Bank Counselor training to certify twenty-four individuals from key student affairs offices. During the two-day training, members of the campus community were introduced to federal poverty guidelines, as well as state programs that can be accessed to benefit qualified individuals. In addition, the trainees learned how to guide individuals through the Benefits Bank application process and ethical guidelines associated with providing such assistance. The trainee group was comprised of both faculty and staff, as well as selected students serving in leadership roles within the College.

While the establishment of such a network is still new on our campus, and not yet institutionalized, individual departments are beginning to utilize their Ohio Benefits Bank trained staff members in times of need. For example, on several occasions in Advising, I have connected a student with non-academic issues to an internal Benefits Bank Counselor to discuss state programs that can remove financial barriers that are complicating the student’s educational situation. Likewise, these types of referrals are also followed up with communication to Counseling Services to provide additional outreach and support.

Dismissed Students: What is Our Obligation?

A holistic approach to working with students is complicated when a student is dismissed from the institution and can no longer access the college’s support services. What, after all, is the college’s obligation to a student who has not met the standards to allow continued enrollment? Should an open enrollment college play a role in the student’s transition to his or her next step?

Within our Advising team, we began to notice this particular needs gap during our readmission process. During this process, students must petition to re-enter the College after academic dismissal, and the decision to readmit rests largely on the proactive steps the student takes to remove barriers. Students petitioning for readmission are encouraged to seek out career counseling, clarify goals, obtain mental health counseling or resolve financial problems in order to support their case for re-entry. While the college offers an extensive menu of such support services, how does the dismissed student without connections or community support access such assistance?

In response, Advising collaborated with Counseling Services on campus to compile a list of community resources broken down by category: mental health, academic assistance/literacy programs, mentorship programs, career guidance, etc. Students seeking readmission are provided with this list to help them connect to resources outside of the College that can help them strengthen their success plans and provide concrete evidence of commitment before petitioning to re-enter the institution. Likewise, this list of resources can serve as an aid for students who need to stop out due to life circumstances, but still need access to support services once provided by the community college environment.

Challenges

For professionals who view education as the great socioeconomic equalizer, perhaps the most difficult student interactions are those that encourage breaks, delays, and time-outs. To the college administrator or faculty member who valiantly attempts to remove barriers of any kind, discouraging further persistence feels unnatural and defeating.

And yet as student stories unravel and professionals begin to ask the tough questions, the solutions we can offer may not be enough. One of the challenges of asking more, doing more, and providing more is that it still may not be enough. With enrollment pressure and retention rates pushing many decisions, it takes a truly student-centered individual to recommend stopping out until the student’s life and environment has stabilized. However, open enrollment institutions owe this type of respect and holistic approach to the students to which it extends enrollment. Often, a student experiencing a myriad of barriers is simply unable to allow his or her academic potential to shine until other basic needs are met. Deferring continuation, in some cases, may actually promote student success in the long run. The challenge is, of course, that helping students in this way has the potential to adversely impact institutional retention goals, and ultimately, college funding.

Additionally, nearly all colleges are often challenged by traditional academic culture, which sets expectations high and promotes independence among those enrolled. Many institutions, though expanded to include more student support services in the last several decades, expect that students have removed some of their own barriers prior to initial enrollment. With the exception of those who interact closely with students, the general population may assume that college-bound students have resolved issues of financial distress, hunger, homelessness, or transportation prior to enrollment. This assumption of privilege can prevent faculty, staff, and community members from asking students the questions that can lead them to assistance. Likewise, this bias can cloud judgment when a student indicates he or she cannot attend class, complete work on a computer, purchase materials or find a safe place to study at night. Without an awareness of the reality of such situations among the student body, many faculty or staff interactions with students may never reach a level in which help can be provided.

Conclusion

Based on popular research, most institutions point the finger at the expected barriers such as low college readiness, first-generation status, or socio-economic disadvantage. While these are the most identifiable (and perhaps the most measurable) correlations to a student’s ability to persist, community colleges perhaps risk overlooking deeper reasons why students drop away from their studies or withdraw all together. While nearly all college students possess some risk factors that may prevent them from completion, the open access institution cannot afford to avoid the difficult conversations or to rest entirely on popular research.

Community colleges are strategically positioned to help students attain educational levels that can improve lifetime income and employability, thus breaking generational poverty cycles. This position, however, challenges the community college environment to stretch beyond the expected student affairs landscape, and to provide a holistic approach to wraparound services.

The community college landscape continues to change at a rapid rate, and often reflects the struggles of society as a whole. Community college staff, faculty, and personnel need to feel confident in their ability to engage in conversations about real life issues that may prevent students from completing individual courses, semesters and ultimately, credentials. Unfortunately, we cannot assume that every individual who enters the community college has stabilized his or her life to support academic success, or that even the most prepared student will not face life altering challenges during his or her enrollment.

The community college, in a very real sense, truly serves and lifts the community in which it is located. In order to appropriately serve students, an understanding of the surrounding community, connection to local resources, and dialogue about social issues impacting the population are just as critical as traditional student success services. A community college is in a position of service, and any college that opens its doors to anyone willing to learn must also provide innovative support for its students to be able to do just that.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you see parallels between your campus (whether two or four year) and the basic needs barriers presented in this article? Can you think of a recent student situation that was deeper than what it appeared to be on the surface?
  2. What biases may you have about the students who attend your college? Do you generally assume that students have what they need, outside of the campus, to succeed?
  3. Do you feel as though a college has an obligation to help students access basic needs? Why or why not?
  4. If you answered “no” to question #3, how would you guide a student who discloses hunger, shelter, transportation, or financial issues impacting his or her success?

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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