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Community College Pathways: A Multilevel Examination of Institutional Roles in Student Success


Set within the context of the current fiscal and political climates, community colleges have received growing attention with their role being articulated as critical to economic recovery. Recent initiatives have heightened the expectations placed on community colleges to improve institutional efficiency and effectiveness in addressing the nation's workforce needs and increasing degree attainment rates. This emphasis on community colleges creates an opportunity for this sector of higher education to better define assessment measures to guide data-driven decisions. To inform these efforts, this study aims to provide a better understanding of the institutional factors that promote persistence, particularly in the areas that may be within the discretion of community college leaders to initiate change.

Community college scholarship has contributed greatly to an understanding of the student experiences that promote successful outcomes, yet these inquiries struggle to provide a more sophisticated understanding of institutional contexts. The Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study is utilized in this study to examine a nationally representative sample of 5,410 community college students, following their trajectories from initial enrollment in postsecondary educational in 2003-04 through 2009. The study offers a unique perspective in examining students' mobility by accounting for every institution attended in students' 6-year trajectories, which resulted in an institutional sample of 1,584 colleges. After an extensive search of the literature, this study appears to be one of the first in the field of higher education to date to utilize multiple membership random effect modeling (MMREM) in applied research on college students. Advancing the statistical inquiry is particularly critical for community college research, because 2-year students have the highest student mobility rates nationally (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center [NSCRC], 2012b). Furthermore, with the improved accuracy in estimates, researchers seeking to contribute to the national dialogue on community college accountability should be confident in their capacity to publish findings with a high degree of confidence.

In addition to informing research, the results have implications for theory, practice, and policy. Institutional effects were identified in several areas where strategic decisions could be made to implement change, regarding the percentage of part-time faculty, distance learning offerings, and career placement services. Perhaps the most informative results come from the many student-level and college-level findings that point to the critical role of intentional efforts to engage students through academic integration, involvement, and interaction. Paired with these conclusions is the finding that larger investments in academic support expenditures have a strong positive impact on persistence. Higher education decision-makers need to evaluate their prioritizing of funds to determine ways to minimize nonacademic overhead and support costs to be able to divert more resources to academic support. This research clearly highlights the importance for a variety of community college stakeholders to better understand the relationship between institutional efforts and student outcomes.

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