March 16, 2018

To Empower Community Colleges, Empower Their Librarians | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellCommunity colleges are increasingly important to America’s higher education system, but they are also a point of failure for too many students. The American Association for Community Colleges (AACC) is planning to change that with the rollout of a new guide—but where do librarians fit into the program?

There are some sobering revelations in an article titled “Who Gets To Graduate” in [a recent] New York Times Magazine. What we learn from the article is that what really matters the most when it comes to college students persisting to graduation is family income. It’s a simple formula. The rich do well and the poor struggle. Put simply, only 25 percent of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

The good news is that, with the proper mechanisms in place to identify these at-risk students, getting them into programs where they receive support and attention and are helped to build their confidence will make a difference. The article points to poor students’ lack of confidence and rich students’ resilience as a key differentiator in persistence to graduation. However, creating the type of team needed to structure a response is, as you might suspect, time, labor, and resource intensive—which is why we don’t see it at many of our institutions.

No Surprise

Knowing what we do about the differences between students from low- and high-income families, it should come as no surprise that community colleges have such dismal graduation numbers. Only 46 percent of students who enter community colleges earn an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college. The AACC, based on plans articulated in a new report, aims to put a halt to the cycle of failure. Empowering Community Colleges To Build the Nation’s Future communicates the core mission to create change: “by 2020, to reduce by half the number of students who come to college unprepared, to double the number who finish remedial courses and make it through introductory college-level courses, and to close achievement gaps across diverse populations of students.” That’s a great aspirational goal, but given that the economic division in our country between poor and rich is likely to grow, how exactly does the AACC plan to pull this off?

Moving Beyond Ideas

The central theme of the report is that this point in the 21st century is an opportune time, given the need for the type of jobs that will help the United States compete globally, for community college transformation. The ideas are organized around seven transformational outcomes. One plan for implementation speaks most directly to the solutions being piloted at the University of Texas at Austin, as profiled in the Times piece, that offer at-risk students the structured support they need. Referred to as the “Pathway,” it lays out a plan for success on which both the college and student agree. This plan establishes checkpoints at which the student’s success is assessed, and if the student is having difficulty, then an intervention will occur to get the student back on track.

After each of those seven outcomes is described in more detail and several case studies are provided for each, the report wraps up with “some next big things.” What’s in store for the future? While some sound like more of the same, a national credentialing system is recommended to allow for a standardization of competency-based skills so that consistency exists in the granting of credit for competency-based learning. If nothing else, this report is ambitious in its scope. But something is missing.

Libraries Are Out of the Picture

As is often the case with these types of reports, the library perspective is absent. This is somewhat disappointing because anyone who has looked into what’s happening in community college libraries in the last few years knows there is great work being done and no dearth of innovative services. You would think that in choosing at least a hundred people to serve on the planning committees, the organizers could have identified and included a community college librarian or two among the many senior administrators. My search of the document found only two references to libraries. One, a case study pointing to a librarian who attends a campuswide instruction team meeting, and the other is a mention of a joint-use library. Surely the report could offer a mention of academic librarians providing research support. If the goal is to identify at-risk students and provide them with additional support at point of need, who better to involve in that service than academic librarians?

The research tells us that many students are overwhelmed by college-level research and suffer anxiety when confronted with a research project. This leads to procrastination and failure. What we may need is more research that documents that librarian support, either individually or as a component of an institutional team, contributes to improving student confidence and boosting academic success at all levels of learning but particularly at community colleges where low-income and first-generation students are concentrated. Community college librarians are already working, despite resource constraints at many locations, to provide the additional academic support the students need. If the AACC believes it can reach that goal of doubling the number of students who succeed, and I wish them well in their efforts to do so, the association would be well advised to invite community college librarians to join the conversation.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Kevin Briggs says:

    This is an interesting article. I agree that librarians need to be in on the conversation. I am a librarian in an administration role but still have to be on the front lines assisting the other staff with our students. We see and interact with these students having problems every day. I find it disappointing that libraries and librarians are so undervalued in what we bring to the table in regards to student success, retention, and student learning. Justifying the value of the library to administration seems to be the going trend, especially in community colleges. What I want to ask is, how did you attain your Ed.D or PhD without the library and its’ resources (materials, staff, etc.)? So why would students not need access to those same resources now to be successful. Great article and hopefully will start dialogue that will change the perception of libraries in the eyes of administrators overly concerned with FTE instead student success, quality instruction and assignments, and students having the best opportunity to be the best student and person that they can be.

    • StevenB says:

      Thanks for your comment Kevin. Great question for CC administrators and faculty – how would they have gotten where they are without library support.

      I did notice that a CC president tweeted this column – acknowledging the great job the library at his institution does. Let’s hope to see more of this – and community college librarians being consulted about the role they can play in improving student graduation rates.