Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

A Roadmap for Student Success at Manchester Community College

A Roadmap for Student Success at Manchester Community College


Hiring new faculty members is hard enough in a time of fiscal austerity, but getting the funds to hire more student support personnel can be even harder. “Our support staff is way out of proportion to what we need for our student population—we have only five professional advisors for 7,700 students,” says Chris Paulin, director of the social science and hospitality division at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut. Faculty assist with advising loads, and temporary counselors are hired during peak enrollment periods, but it’s still difficult to keep up with demand. As a result, some students end up self-advising—“and doing so poorly,” Paulin says. “They aren’t taking the classes they need and are graduating with too many credits, or not graduating at all because they never got the right credits and didn’t figure this out till they exhausted their financial aid.”

In order to help students navigate the best path to graduation, Manchester decided to give students a map—literally. The college developed a visual education map that shows students the key actions to take at various milestones in their academic careers and provides the contact information for the offices and services that will assist them at each step. The map is currently being adapted into an interactive web-based program that will track students’ courses and offer direct access to support services online. Meanwhile, the printed map is now being used in new student orientation, first-year seminars, and summer bridge programs, and distributed around campus in posters, murals, and leaflets. By saturating the campus with its image, the college hopes not only to raise awareness of the map as a tool for charting important milestones and actions, but also incorporate it in the language of college, says Duncan Harris, Manchester’s chief student affairs officer.

“It’s becoming one of many tools we use to work with students,” Harris says. “When faculty meet with students, they can say ‘What’s the plan? Pull out your roadmap. Ok, you’re in the second column; let’s see what you should do before the end of the semester. Hopefully, five years from now, it will be embedded as a part of the college culture.”

Collaborative Development

One thing Manchester does very well is cross-divisional collaboration, Harris says—most of the college’s committees and task forces feature members from academic affairs, student affairs, and other offices across campus. The team assembled to plan the education map was no different, with representatives from advising, admissions, career services, and faculty from across the disciplines.

Participation in AAC&U’s Roadmap project was crucial early on. Developing a Community College Student Roadmap is designed to help community colleges create academic support programs that engage students as they enter college and teach them, from the outset, how to become actively engaged in their education. The Roadmap Project provided initial funding for Manchester’s education map, and a core group of team members attended AAC&U’s Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success, where they were able to get feedback on their project plan and see examples of similar projects from other campuses, such as Miami Dade College and Prince George’s County Community College.

Back in Manchester, the project team recruited more members to begin brainstorming and outlining the map, including Ed Hogan, a professor of graphic design who eventually designed the actual visual map. A series of focus groups also brought another, crucial set of voices to the project: the college’s students.

Consulting the end users—in this case, the students—is crucial for a project like this, Hogan says. “You have to figure out what the user wants and when they will want it: if you give them a piece of information, what’s the next question they will ask, and where should we lead them for those answers?” The team conducted thirty focus groups with students from across a broad range of courses and programs, yielding surprising results. “We were sending out e-mails and letters telling students they needed to go to the bursar’s office—but they didn’t know what a bursar was, and some said that they were embarrassed to then ask what it was, as the word was used in a way that made it seem like they should know,” Paulin says. “Finding out that the language we use in the academy can be a roadblock for students was huge. It helped us put the language of our map into a much clearer format than we would have if we hadn’t talked to the students.”

While the focus groups and team brainstorming sessions yielded a wealth of information about student needs, the question remained of how to prioritize that information and organize it on a clear, concise map that students could easily follow. “The big design challenge was that we’d have to serve all these different kinds of students on different pathways,” Hogan says. “It’s the nature of the community college: we have students who finish in two years, we have some who take five or six years because they’re only taking a couple of classes at a time, we have some who come in to get some career training, or specialized programs for veterans…. And we had to boil all this down enough to be succinct, not just a reproduction of our student handbook. What’s important for everyone, what do they all need to succeed, whether they’re taking a few classes or completing a degree?”

mccmap2.jpgKeep It Simple

The original plan was to first create an electronic map system, accessible through a web portal, and later to distill this into a two-dimensional visual map. Hogan, however, suggested reversing these steps. “I teach this kind of work and know how expansive [an electronic program] can be.”  Starting with the unbounded electronic map, the team could easily get bogged down in all the possible information to include, so they agreed to focus first on the two-dimensional map.

The finished map (see right) shows students moving up a staircase, with the “milestone” markers labeling fifteen, thirty, forty-five, and, at the very top, sixty credits. Above each milestone is a checklist of what students should do by the time they complete the indicated number of credits. At fifteen credits, for example, students are reminded to meet with an advisor, learn to use the library, and consider joining a club or organization. At forty-five credits students should review their transcript with an advisor and connect with career services. The map also features a shorter staircase for certificates running parallel to the larger one; it ends at thirty credits and has a twelve-credit marker, as some certificates can be completed with fewer credits.

The sparseness of the map is part of what makes it effective, Paulin says. “We send out all these e-mails, and this information is all in the handbook, but there are so many things students still don’t know, precisely because they are inundated with information. One of the beauties of the map is that it tells students concisely, on one sheet of paper, what steps they have to take. Manchester uses placement exams, but many students didn’t know their SATs could exempt them from taking placement exams and get them into college-level classes from the start. We’d sent e-mails saying this, but many students still didn’t know that, so the map says this from the start: submit SAT scores. And because it’s visually clear, students are more likely to look at that than long e-mails from the registrar.”

Hogan is currently leading work on the electronic map, which will be much more expansive and can be customized to each student’s program track and course schedule. Early plans to make the electronic map auto-populating—pulling students’ transcript information directly from the college registration system—had to be scrapped because of technical constraints, but the program will still be highly interactive, providing links directly to online resources and connecting with support services at the college for each goal on the education map.

Advising and Assessment

While the electronic map is still under development, the campus is being saturated with the two-dimensional map. Posters and banners showing the map hang around campus; it’s included in the student handbook, handed out at new student orientation, and distributed in postcard size to prospective students at college fairs. The college wants to be sure every student is aware of the map—and every faculty and staff member, too, Harris says. “The idea is that this is a new part of our culture; as we help students map out their success, we want to be sure we’re helping them to use this map.”

The map is also being embedded in the curriculum for the college’s first-year student success course and in several summer bridge programs. Having this cohort of students using the map will also allow the college to assess the map’s efficacy. Harris says—“We’ll look at the impact of coaching students to use the map in the first semester, and see if retention rates go up for those students.” It’s an imperfect assessment measure, he admits, as this cohort of students is defined by their enrollment in other programs designed to improve their success, “but I think we’ll be better off having this in place.”

Ultimately, the map is not so much an intervention in itself, but one of many tools faculty and staff can use to advise students. “It’s supplemental,” Hogan says. “There’s nothing better than dealing with a real person. We still will encourage students to have an advisor; that’s the first step on the map—identify an advisor.” Paulin agrees—facilitating student success requires a human touch. The map is a useful tool, but it takes dedicated faculty and staff who can “show them how to set up their education plan, how to do what they have to do to survive, eat, put gas in the car—and do well in their academics. No computer program can do that right now.”

Manchester Community College