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Shifting focus

Changes to California's community colleges augment services, limit options for students

By Cody McFarland, associate editor
On April 26, 2014

  • Breaking the mold - Former art department chairman Richard Akers poses with his self-portrait, In the Woods, in the Eddie Rhodes Gallery on Sept. 3. Akers is currently serving as Academic Senate president. (Sam Attal / The Advocate)

Despite not knowing of the statewide push for student success, Antonio Rojas knew it was finally time to move forward with his education.
As friends from high school and college classmates moved on to universities or garnered degrees around him, Rojas spent a turbulent six years, marked by indecision and funded by long hours at low-paying jobs, trying to find his calling at Contra Costa College.
Mountains of self-exploration, five attempts at choosing the right major and more than 100 completed units later, the hopeful nursing major has completed almost all of the prerequisites to gain entry into a nursing program. Yet, due to the changes to priority registration under the Student Success Act, Rojas has one of the lowest fall semester registration priorities because of his high unit volume.
Consequently, he has little chance of getting into the impacted Organic Chemistry class he needs at CCC for entrance into certain nursing programs.
"I know I'm not the only person who takes long at this," Rojas said. "It's just, you spend all this time trying to figure things out. You finally figure out what you want to do with your education, but then all the units you've taken hold you back."
Part of Senate Bill 1456, known as the Student Success Act of 2012, mandates that incoming students to community colleges in California who complete orientation and assessment, meet with a counselor, declare a major and establish a comprehensive educational plan will be given higher priority to register for classes than returning students with 100 or more accumulated units.
Though this change to registration begins in fall 2014, its effects have already been felt by students with 100 or more units who have checked and seen that, when registration for fall classes opens up, they will be some of the last students in line.
With a registration date of May 27, as frustrated as Rojas may be, he said he has no intention of giving up on his goal and plans to submit an appeal to Admissions and Records in order to maintain some priority and register well before that date to get the Organic Chemistry class he needs.
"All students can appeal their priority registration date," Director of Admissions and Records Catherine Fites said. "If there is no documentation of extenuating circumstances, then the student is not likely to be given priority."
CCC President Denise Noldon said extenuating circumstances can include having a unit-intensive major, such as engineering or nursing, or being displaced by the workforce and returning to improve skills at the institution in which one accumulated a high unit volume or received a degree.
"In many cases our students have legitimate reasons to retain priority, but they have to provide the necessary documentation," Dr. Noldon said. "(Such appeals) are handled on a case by case basis."
Another option for students with more than 100 units is to submit an early graduation petition, which allows students to receive top priority in getting the last few classes they need to graduate or transfer, Fites said.
"We still have the early graduation petition, but you only have one attempt in your life to use it in this district," she said.
Although the deadline has passed for students to turn in an early graduation petition for fall, they may still access the petition form on the college website to receive priority for spring 2015. The form should be submitted to Admissions and Records between Aug. 1 and Sept. 15.

With the best intentions
While the changes to priority registration may negatively affect some students, the priority given to new students who complete enrollment and assessment, meet with a counselor and form an educational plan will, theoretically, allow them to move through the system faster with an organized framework of the classes they need and higher priority to guarantee access to those classes.
Noldon said the old system of determining priority registration rewarded unit accumulation, which is not a clear sign of progress toward a degree, certificate or transfer.
"The goal of the Student Success Initiative is to ensure that people who are making satisfactory and efficient progress toward their goals do not get held up by the system," she said. "We want to give students the guidance to set goals sooner, to therefore meet their goals sooner."
To ensure students are getting the proper guidance to set and complete goals in a timely manner, the Student Success Act also mandates that community colleges statewide enhance student services, including orientation, assessment and counseling.
Working with limited resources, CCC is currently looking at how it can leverage the efforts of its employees to effectively move in the direction of the initiative and meet state mandates on schedule, Noldon said.
Counselor and counseling department Chairperson Norma Valdez-Jimenez said, "The initiative has increased our workload, but of course our primary goal is always to serve students. We're challenged to think outside of the box, to be more strategic, purposeful and creative in how we serve students."
With the assistance of dedicated counselors and enhanced services, such as the online educational planning tool that launched last month, students at CCC, whether new or returning, should be better equipped to set and meet their goals, Valdez-Jimenez said.
Nursing major Yesenia Panucl said she likes the idea of the Student Success Act streamlining college services and the transfer or degree completion process. Panucl said that because the nursing program at CCC is so impacted, it is very competitive and difficult to get into, adding that nursing students must maintain satisfactory grades to avoid being terminated from the program.
She said she thinks that incoming students determined to get out quickly really do deserve priority over those who have many units but have yet to complete a degree, certificate or transfer program.
"It pushes students to move on after two years," she said. "Students who stick around limit class availability for new students. One hundred units is a lot. I wouldn't want to stay around that long."

Preparedness, not swiftness
"There needs to be a cap, but I'm not sure if 100 (units) is generous enough," physics and astronomy professor Jon Celesia said. "We (teachers) feel students need to create a strong foundation before moving on, and often times that means more units. A strong and broad foundation is recommended for all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors."
Another popular program on campus, STEM is also highly competitive and unit-intensive.
Celesia said it is ideal for STEM students to have a foundation in both biology and chemistry. Studying ethics and the humanities to accompany the sciences is just as important, as well as communication, which will allow students to clearly articulate their ideas and research findings, he said.
"The initiative - the push to get students out quicker - will ultimately weaken the quality of the end product," he said. "There needs to be time for exploration."
Danielle Odeh-Ajero, biology major and Center for Science Excellence assistant, said she knew before arriving at CCC in fall 2011 that she was going to major in biology. Though she will have more than 100 units after this semester, Odeh-Ajero is not concerned with losing her registration priority because she will be graduating. However, she said she could see STEM majors who started the program after taking time to explore their options easily accumulating 100 or more units, and recognizes how stressful losing their priority can be.
"Getting the necessary classes on time can be frustrating, especially in higher level sections where there aren't multiple sections offered," she said. "Often times (STEM majors) can't just take that class next semester because it's a class that's only offered once a year."
She referenced Physics 231, the highest level physics class offered at CCC, which is limited to two class sections per year.
"It's a (degree) requirement, but it fills up fast," she said. "I understand what (the state) is trying to do, but the number of classes I need and the conflicts in the schedules make it hard. You pack your schedule as (much) as you can, but in some cases two years isn't enough time."
Celesia said, "It's one thing to be spinning your wheels, but another to really be advancing. To go slow is to go strong."

Keeping persistent
Like many individuals who started their college studies at community colleges, Rojas set out to learn about himself and improve his academic foundation before paying four-year tuition costs.
"I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. That's why I went to a community college instead of a university," he said.
But the statewide push to get students through the community college system faster, accompanied by however California's legislators choose to define success, seems to take the community out of community college, he said.
Noldon said, "There's not one standard definition (of success). I believe it is the self-definition by students of their achievement of their own stated goals."
Though it took him awhile, Rojas discovered his calling and set his educational goal. Now, the only things standing in his way are the changes to registration priority under the Student Success Act.
While the act has, and will continue to, enhance student services, Rojas said the counselors at CCC have been helpful and supportive throughout his six plus years on campus.
"(The counselors were) very helpful," he said. "They told me everything I needed to reach my goal, the classes, grades I needed and how to apply."
He did not go to just one counselor, but saw different ones at least once a year. However, Rojas does not think that if he had met with the same counselor more often he would have made his decision to major in nursing anytime sooner.
"I had to figure it out myself," he said. "You choose a goal (not them), and they tell you how and what you need to get there.
"I finally decided on a goal because I was getting older, friends had moved on from school and it was time to start getting my life together."
Rojas said he is determined to get his degree, his life together and be successful, even if he has to do so in spite of the Student Success Initiative. 

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