Tell, Don’t Ask

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After partying and slacking off caused her grades to slip at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Lauren Cocroft had a serious decision to make, when administrators told she couldn’t remain on academic probation much longer.

She would have to take a special guidance course on how to be a better student and visit the school’s “Success Center” at least five times each semester for much-needed tutoring.

If her 1.25 grade-point average didn’t become a 2.0 – enough for her to get off probation – she’d be shown the door.

“I was crying, like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Cocroft, 23, recalled thinking at the time, embarrassed at the prospect of flunking out.

Cocroft accepted the help the school offered through a newly adopted program called Enhanced Opening Doors. As its name implies, the program is an improved version of a predecessor, which was called Opening Doors.

Both programs have aimed to help underperforming students get off academic probation by giving them extra help through the special guidance course and in-house tutoring center. The key difference is that while Opening Doors made that help optional, Enhanced Opening Doors makes it mandatory.

A new study shows that the optional approach failed to make a meaningful difference, but the mandatory approach nearly doubled the number of students who regained good academic standing.

The lesson for college administrators and others is that when it comes to dealing with students who need to get their academic acts together, don’t just suggest ways they can do it. Make them do it.

“By sending the message that participation in a program or a course is required, a college can engage students who would not take part on their own,” concludes the study, Getting Back on Track: Effects of a Community College Program for Probationary Students.

Enhanced Opening Doors – along with its predecessor – was funded by a $585,000 grant through MDRC from about a dozen foundations (including the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, Joyce and William T. Grant foundations) and various federal agencies (including the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education).

As a result of the program’s success, Chaffey College has institutionalized the program with its own funds and offers it on a regular basis at a cost of nearly $250,000 a year. Students pay $20 per credit for the three-credit course. They must also buy a $40 book.

Is paying for such a program worthwhile for a community college? “Absolutely,” said Ricardo Diaz, coordinator of Chaffey’s Opening Doors programs. He said the vast majority of students who go through the program say it was worthwhile.

“Students telling us it was worthwhile is what matters more than anything else,” Diaz says. “They’re the ones putting their $100 on the line. If it’s not doing them any good, we don’t want it.”

Diaz provided contact information for students who had been through Enhanced Opening Doors.

Getting refocused

Among them was Cocroft, who says that even though she was never a particularly bad student, the course she took through Enhanced Opening Doors helped her to get more organized and focused, and to understand how she learns best.

For instance, the course emphasized the importance of writing down assignments and other things in a planner and using “priority levels” to determine what needed to be done first, and by when.

She also discovered that she’s more of a visual learner, so it helps when she draws pictures of various concepts or makes phrases out of words. Also, the usual advice of finding a quiet place to study didn’t work for her because she gets distracted too easily in an environment of silence. Soft music or a TV helps her focus better, she learned.

Cocroft said she’s carried her newly discovered homework and study habits with her into other classes and has improved her GPA from 1.25 to 2.6.

Enhanced Opening Doors, she said, served as a “slap in the face” that woke her up to the need to get more serious about school.

For various reasons, hundreds of other students found themselves in similar situations at Chaffey College, a 126-year-old two-year public community college that served about 20,000 students last fall.

In 2005, when Opening Doors began at the school, 898 students were randomly assigned for a study of the program; the following year, 444 were assigned for a study of the new Enhanced Opening Doors.

If the first Opening Doors wasn’t successful, the study concluded, it may have been because the program “did not fully operate as designed.” Only about half the program group took the special guidance course, called College Success.

“Low participation rates likely reflect the interaction of the program’s voluntary nature and the fact that the College Success course did not provide transferable credits and therefore may not have been as attractive to students as some other courses,” the study stated.

That’s why college administrators decided to make participation mandatory. Students were told they had to sign up for College Success or their registrations would be blocked, although that consequence was later rescinded.

While only half the students in the first Opening Doors program took the College Success course, roughly three-fourths of those in Enhanced Opening Doors took the course. Also, for the first time, instructors enforced the requirement for students to get tutoring at the college’s Success Centers five times during the semester.

The result: The Enhanced Opening Doors program almost doubled the proportion of participating students who moved off probation and into good academic standing.

Diaz says the program represents a perfect marriage of academics and student services. Cocroft speaks of how Enhanced Opening Doors transformed her as a student. She credits the College Success course instructor with being contagiously enthusiastic about learning.

“I just took everything that she taught me,” Cocroft said. “I changed my life around. I just kind of saw school through a whole different view.”

Chaffey College never would have made Cocroft move toward success if it hadn’t been spurred to do so itself.

Before implementing the program, Diaz said, Chaffey had undergone an accreditation review by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. “One of the things the accreditation review recommended was that we re-evaluate our probation and dismissal policies and procedures and begin to more effectively implement them,” Diaz said. “The college hadn’t been doing it on a regular basis.”

Chaffey College had good reason to comply with the request.

“If we lose accreditation, our degrees don’t have the same validity,” Diaz said.

Contact: Ricardo Diaz, counselor/Opening Doors coordinator,