Tennessee Board of Regents administrators want to give community college students fewer choices when it comes to class offerings. While limiting choices may seem counterintuitive, this initiative could prove key to increasing the state’s number of college graduates.
The TBR is continuing to promote the implementation of Structured Learning Communities — tight-knit programs that come with predetermined, strict class schedules. Instead of taking two years to complete an associate’s degree or general education core, some students can do it in a year through an SLC.
“Complete College America argues that anything we can do to shorten the time that a student is on campus or is enrolled will increase their chances of completing their degree, and an SLC tries to do that,” said Ellen Weed, Lumina Foundation Grant director at the TBR, during a presentation at the board’s quarterly meeting earlier this month.
The SLC programs give students a clear path to completion, increase focus on the program and accelerate completion rates, Weed said. At the start of 2012 school year, more than 2,700 students were enrolled in SLCs created from a Lumina grant — an increase of more than 1,500 students from the fall of 2011.
“This goes back to the Complete College Act of 2010. One of the comments made within that act of the state legislature is that they wanted the state schools to do some things with block programming and structured learning communities,” Nashville State Community College vice president of academics Kim Eastep said. “So to some degree, we’re all responding to what state legislators have told us what we need to be working on.”
Statistics show that 75 percent of students in the Lumina-backed SLCs are either still enrolled or graduated from the program after a year. For the non-SLC student population, the percentage is closer to 50. However, the results in some of the more experimental programs — like those in business or culinary education at NSCC — have yet to be determined.
Nashville State recently implemented an SLC program in early childhood education. The program meets on Tuesday and Thursdays, with nonstop classes from the morning to afternoon. Eastep said several students in the program were mothers who could conveniently drop their students off at school, then go to class.
“A lot of the success is because the students support each other. Students really do get to know each other. They are like a little community,” Eastep said. “For example, if one student is out because they have a child that is sick, the other members of the community will often say ‘Let me turn in our stuff for you.’ ”
But the programs still come with challenges.
One of the biggest hurdles is getting students on the same page.
“We have students with six credit hours or no credit hours. ... What do you do with all of that?” Eastep said. “Finding a way to get them all on the same start block so they can come together is a challenge for us, because we bring in so many students that have a patchwork of higher ed experiences.”
Another big hurdle is scheduling. Many community college students also work part-time or full-time jobs — and may need the flexibility offered by traditional college course scheduling.
The TBR and NSCC are exploring the use of hybrid programs that combine online and campus-based courses to help with scheduling. The TBR is also looking at adding incentives for both students and schools that take part in SLCs. Other states offer $1,000 scholarships to students who graduate from an SLC and go on to a four-year university.
In a specific SLC for a general education core, community college students can complete 41 hours of coursework that is transferable to state universities.
“Our core certificate seemed like a good idea to us when we established it as a motivator for students. If you will just finish these 41 hours, you’ll complete your core, you’re guaranteed they will be accepted at a four-year university, and we’ll give you a certificate,” Weed said at the TBR meeting.
“That general education core makes us look like geniuses (based on its success).”
But now, the challenge will be the sell to students. The TBR is going to launch a branding campaign early next year, emphasizing the need for quicker completion of community college degrees.
“This is an idea that has a lot of promise and potential,” Eastep said. “There are just a lot of moving parts to actually pulling these programs together.”