By: Gary Schoeniger and Michael Crawford
Community colleges were created as a powerful tool to improve opportunities for all Americans — especially those from lower-income backgrounds — offering a chance at a brighter future and a pathway to the middle class.
Yet community colleges struggle to retain and graduate students. According to the Community College Research Center, approximately 40% of community college students enrolled in the Fall semester do not return for the subsequent Fall. In terms of graduation, less than 39% of first-time students earn a credential within six years.
Graduation rates are low in part because community colleges, unlike private or state colleges, must accept basically everyone who applies — including those who are underprepared. Additionally, community college students are incredibly diverse. The average age of community college students is 29, and two thirds attend part-time. Many are caring for dependents, juggling personal and financial challenges, all while attending school.
Efforts to increase student retention and completion are under way. Among the most popular are student success courses designed to teach students how to transcribe notes, take tests, and manage their time. The Center for Community College Student Engagement reports that “students who complete these courses are more likely to complete other courses, earn better grades, have higher overall GPAs, and obtain degrees.”
Yet, while note-taking, study skills, and time management may contribute to student success, hope is also a critical factor — one that is often overlooked.
Recent research indicates that hope is a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence, personality, previous academic success, and ACT or LSAT scores. Hopeful students graduate at higher rates than non-hopeful students. And Dr. Shane Lopez, Senior Scientist at Gallup, notes that hopeful students are more productive than non-hopeful students.
For some, hope is a touchy-feely concept that is difficult to articulate and easy to overlook within an academic context. Yet researchers define hope as the conceptualization of goals, the establishment of strategies to achieve those goals, and the motivation to pursue those goals. Lopez describes hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that you have the power to make it so.”
So how do we instill hope in the community college experience?
For a growing number of colleges, the answer is the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, an experiential, problem-based course designed to expose students to the fundamental aspects of entrepreneurial thinking, its broad applicability, and the limitless opportunities it can provide.
Inspired by the life-story of Pulitzer nominee Clifton Taulbert and the influence of an “unlikely” entrepreneur, students learn how an entrepreneurial mindset provides a powerful framework for thinking that can empower them to succeed, regardless of their circumstances or chosen path.
Students in the Ice House Program begin by articulating the future they would like to create. Using their vision as a guide, students are then immersed in entrepreneurial experiences that encourage them to take ownership of their education, seeing — perhaps, for the first time — how engaging their academic experience can directly contribute to the lives they endeavor to create. Throughout the course, students are also exposed to video case studies featuring a variety of unlikely entrepreneurs who have overcome adversity by embracing an entrepreneurial mindset.
Two promising pilots demonstrate the power of such an approach. At Edmonds Community College, 250 “high risk” students participated in the Ice House Program. Impressively, 100% completed the course, and 90% persisted from Fall to Spring — a rate well above the national average.
As a result, the Ice House students learned to view themselves and their college experience in a new way. Reflecting on her experience as a facilitator of the program, Theresa Allyn noted, “If students learn that… they have choices to better their life, they are more apt to own their educational process and become active directors of it, rather than a bystander simply meeting course requirements.”
At Pikes Peak Community College, another promising pilot yielded similar results. Approximately 1,000 remedial students were randomly selected to take the Ice House Program. The Ice House students persisted to the Spring semester at a rate 28% higher than those who did not take the course. Additionally, students who completed the Ice House Program went on to pass college level courses at a rate 14% higher than those who did not take the course.
Dr. Regina Lewis, a facilitator at Pikes Peak, also saw a shift in her students, which she described in a video interview produced by the college: “Some of them [students] see such a shift that they change their majors. Some of them change their attitudes about the class and about school. And some of them start to just change who they are as a person. And if nothing else, they start to change the fact that they can really believe in themselves, that they don’t have to depend on somebody else to solve their problems.”
An entrepreneurial mindset offers a new perspective, one that exposes opportunities, ignites ambition, and fosters the creativity and critical thinking, the perseverance and self-determination that leads to success — both in college and in life. The shared experience of others who have overcome adversity is a powerful tool that reinforces the belief that one has the ability to accomplish one’s goals.
President John F. Kennedy once said: “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our Nation.”
While community college students may be diverse or inadequately prepared, it is important to acknowledge that they arrive with a dream, in search of a better life. It is also important to remember that it is in our nation’s best interest to help them succeed. By instilling an entrepreneurial mindset at the onset of students’ academic experience, we can inspire and empower, instilling hope — the belief that the future will be better than the present and that they have the power to make it so.