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Community college students' perceptions of academic readiness

Author: Bradbury Stewart Millar
This study compares community college students' perceptions of their academic readiness before and after they participated in community college coursework. Students enroll in community colleges for many reasons but many drop-out before reaching their goals. High rates of attrition suggest that students may not accurately assess their levels of readiness for post-secondary study. This may lead to students dropping at least one class or out of college entirely. Students were randomly selected from nine community colleges in the Central Valley of California; 759 responded. A 60 item survey was utilized to gain data about the subjects. Students generally had some ambivalence about their initial preparedness. Students' perceptions of initial readiness significantly declined in most cases once they began their classes.

Table of Contents

Abstract i Acknowledgements ii Chapter 1 – Introduction 1 Statement of the Problem 4 Research Questions 5 Purpose and Significance of the Study 5 Definition of terms 6 Limitations 7 Chapter 2 – Review of the Literature 8 Retention Theory 8 Individual Traits 8 Institutional Integration 10 Organizational Responsibility 13 Academic and Social Involvement 13 Community College Students and Integration 16 Academic Integration 17 Academic Integration and Retention 18 Students and Faculty 19 Part-time Faculty 20 Social Integration 21 Social Interaction and Retention 22 Learning Communities 22


Student Characteristics 24 Age 24 Family Responsibilities 25 Finances and Employment 26 Table 1 – Percent of Students Employed 27 Financial Independence 28 Low-income Status 28 Financial Aid 29 Part-time Students 30 Preparedness 32 High School 33 Table 2 – High School GPA’s 34 Preparedness Predictors 34 Remedial Education 36 Placement Exams 36 Developmental Courses 36 College Grade Point Average 37 First-semester GPA 37 Cumulative GPA 38 GPA and Retention 39 Summary 39 Chapter 3 – Methodology 42 Introduction 42 Research Questions 42


Hypothesis 42 Methodology 43 Subjects 43 Instrumentation 43 Procedure 44 Analysis 48 Chapter 4 – Results 50 Introduction 50 Research Questions 50 Response Rate 51 Table 3 – Gender and Ethnicities 52 Findings 53 Table 4 – Differences in Perception 54 Table 5 – Perceptions of Adequate Assistance 55 Table 6 – Perceptions of Academic Readiness 58 Table 7 – Reasons for Dropping One or More Classes 60 Summary 61 Chapter 5 – Discussion 62 Purpose of the Study 62 Perceptions 62 Discussion of the Findings 63 Hypothesis Question 1 63 Hypothesis Question 2 64


Hypothesis Question 3 64 Varying Responses 65 Survey Assumptions 65 Limitations 67 Recommendations 68 Conclusion 70 Summary 70 References 72 Appendixes 82 Appendix A - Student Survey 84 Appendix B – Table B1 91 Appendix B – Table B2 92 Appendix C – Table C1 93 Appendix C – Table C2 95 Appendix C – Table C3 96 Appendix D – Table D1 98 Appendix D – Table D2 99 Appendix D – Table D3 100 Appendix D – Table D4 103


Community College Students’ Perceptions of Academic Readiness Bradbury Stewart Millar California State University, Fresno University of California, Davis

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Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION Students enroll in community colleges for many reasons. Some hope to earn sufficient credits to graduate with an Associate’s degree before transferring to a 4-year school. Some intend to take a limited number of courses and then transfer elsewhere without graduating (Yindra & Brenner, 2002). Others enroll for certificate programs, vocational training, improved job skills, career enhancement, or personal enrichment (Dadonna & Cooper, 2002; Goel, 2002; Metz, 2004; Neutzling, 2003; Yindra & Brenner, 2002; Zhai & Monzon, 2001). Whatever their plans might be, however, many students drop out before reaching their community college goals. In 2007, 6.2 million, or 35%, of all postsecondary students enrolled at community colleges in the United States (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). By 2008, that number grew to 11.1 million (Community College Facts, 2009) or 42% of all students entering post-secondary education in the United States (Measuring Up, 2008). However, data indicate that 39% to 50% of students who register for community college coursework and attend classes for the first semester will not register for the subsequent semester (NVCC-OIR, 2001; Provasnik & Planty, 2008; Tover & Simon,

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2003). This has a significant effect upon students’ economic futures and the community colleges’ funding. In 2008, high school graduates earned an average of $591 per week, individuals with some college but no degree earned $645, community college graduates earned $736, and those with a Bachelor’s or higher degree earned between $978 and $1,555 per week (Education Pays, 2009). Thirty-three percent of community college students borrow between $6,000 and $9,000 to pay for their educations, but 25% of dropouts who borrow default on their loans, 12% are unemployed, and their median income is one-third less per year than community college graduates (Ladieux & Perna, 2005). College budgets can suffer. Part of community college funding comes from the number of full-time equivalent students (FTE’s) enrolled. California community colleges receive at least $4,367 per FTE (Funding Methodology, 2008). When students drop out prior to their college’s census dates, this funding is lost. The economic consequences due to community college student attrition suggest the need for analysis. Unfortunately, most retention research focuses primarily on students dropping out of four-year colleges and universities (Halpin, 1990; Seidman, 2005; Wild & Ebbers, 2002). At those institutions retention percentages are

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generally higher and student demographics generally differ significantly from those of two-year college students’ (Chaves, 2006; Zhai & Monzon, 2001). Because of these differences, community college retention research is necessary (Freer-Weiss, 2004; Hadegorn & Maxwell, 2002; Hawley & Harris, 2005; Tovar & Simon, 2003). Most retention research is based on Tinto’s (1975) Social Integration Model, which argues academic and social integration into the structures of postsecondary institutions increase retention (Chaves, 2006; Freer-Weiss, 2004; Hawley & Harris, 2005; Metz, 2004; Tinto, 1999). The model is focused on four-year institutions however, and does not address the difficulty of community college student integration (Halpin, 1990; Seidman, 2005; Wild & Ebbers, 2002). Academically, many community college students are underprepared for academic work (Bishop & White, 2007; Goel, 2002), are not certain that they desire an academic degree (Freer-Weiss, 2004; Hawley & Harris, 2005; Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008), are unaccustomed to interacting with instructors (Bean & Metzner, 1985; Escobedo, 2007), or have other important, but non-academic, priorities (Berns & Nyden, 2000; Berns & Smith, 1991; Hagedorn & Maxwell, 2002).

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Social integration is difficult for community college students because most do not live on campus (Freer-Weiss, 2004; Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008), are older than students at four-year institutions (Bean & Metzner, 1985; Goel, 2002; Hagedorn & Maxwell, 2002), are employed (Community College Survey, 2008), and are attending college part-time (Grosset, 2002; Mohmmadi, 1994). These factors make it more difficult for community college students to integrate into their institutions. According to Tinto (1975), they are more likely to drop out. Statement of the Problem Little attention has been given to the degree to which newly enrolled community college students anticipate their own readiness for the demands of college life. Nearly 75% of students who are underprepared academically when entering college will drop out (Grimes & David, 1999). These new students entering community colleges may believe that, having graduated high school, they are prepared for college-level work and begin their academic pursuits expecting to succeed. The high rate of attrition suggests that students may not accurately assess their own levels of readiness for post-secondary study. Unprepared students may find their college coursework unmanageable and drop at

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least one class during their first semester. This tendency may lead to students dropping out of college entirely. Research Questions Do incoming community college students have realistic perceptions regarding the rigors of community college study? Is there a relationship between students’ perceptions of readiness, and their tendency to drop at least one class? Purpose and Significance of the Study The purpose of this investigation was to compare students’ initial perceptions of their readiness for community college study based on their secondary school experiences with their observations after they began participating in community college coursework. By examining the relationship between perceptions before and after starting community college study a number of steps might be taken to improve student retention: If students do have unrealistic perceptions, high school administrators and faculty members can be made aware of the situation and can consider ways to better prepare their students for the rigors of college academics. College instructors can prepare their courses with a better understanding of their new students.

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An improved dialogue between community colleges and their feeder high schools may develop that can create a smoother transition for students as they matriculate from secondary to post-secondary life. Definition of terms There are no universally accepted definitions regarding student retention. In order to proceed, however, the following were adopted: Attrition/Withdrawal: Students who withdraw from a particular institution without formally completing a program but who may enroll at a different institution at a subsequent time (Community College Survey, n.d.; Derby & Smith, 2004; Rovai, 2003). Course retention: Students who are enrolled in a course past the census date and who complete the course (Center, n.d.). Drop-out: Students who enroll in college one semester and do not enroll the next semester, or who leave college before graduating, or who do not complete a formal program of study, and do not enroll at any other collegiate institution (Bean, 2001; Bean & Metzner, 1985; Community College Survey, n.d.; Derby & Smith, 2004; Grosset, 1993; Tinto, 1993; Woosley, 2004).

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Persistence: Students who continue in postsecondary education through graduation, though the time taken to graduate generally is longer than students who maintain a full-time status. Persistence also applies to transfer students (Community College Survey, n.d.; Derby & Smith, 2004; Mohammadi, 1994; Rovai, 2003). Retention: Students who complete a semester and re- enroll until graduation (Barefoot, 2004; Bean, 2001; Derby & Smith, 2004) or accomplish their academic/personal goals (Center, n.d.). Stop-out: Students who leave college for a time then re-enroll at the same institution (Bean, 2001; Community College Survey, n.d.; Derby & Smith, 2004; Grosset, 1993; Mohammadi, 1994; Tinto, 1993; Woolsey, 2004). Limitations There are two potential limiting factors: Survey research relies on a reasonable response rate which is difficult to ensure. Self-report data, upon which this study relied for the surveys, may not be reliable.

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Chapter 2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE This discussion of the college student retention literature begins with an overview of the major contributions to retention theory. It will then turn to the factors that contribute to dropping out. Retention Theory Individual Traits Student retention has been studied most thoroughly since the early 1960’s, particularly by psychologists and sociologists. The research indicated that individuals who left college had similar traits. Heilbrun’s (1965) psychological study of the entire freshman class at the University of Iowa indicated that passive and task-oriented students, particularly at the high-achieving level, are more likely to be retained than students who are more assertive and autonomous. Those students who did not drop out of college were more likely to be submissive and willing to accept their school’s academic values and behavioral culture, and to accept the associated rules and norms. The students who did drop out were more likely to be independent thinkers, to reject the rules and norms with which they disagreed, to find problems with academic structures, and to find autonomy preferable to uniformity.

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Rose and Elton (1966) observed that students who dropped out tended to be more mature, less dependent, and more hostile than their persisting counterparts. Also more self-assured, they were more willing to leave their institution than those who felt more attached to the college. More attached students remained in school, in part, because of their personal insecurities. Dropouts also felt hostilities and frustrations with the institution and the academic process. They were willing to act upon those feelings by leaving school. Other students, while perhaps feeling the same frustrations, chose to stay in school and manage their concerns. In addition, dropouts showed higher levels of maladjustment, and tended to be “. . . illogical, irrational, uncritical in their approach to problem solving, and to dislike reflective and abstract thought” (p. 244). Marks (1967) found that students reported personal weaknesses as reasons for leaving college. Among the reasons for dropping out, Marks noted that students reported poor academic preparation, a lack of finances, immaturity, an inability to adjust to college, a lack of self-discipline, and laziness. In contrast to Rose and Elton (1966), who argued that immature students remain in college to maintain a connection to academic and social

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structures, Marks stated that immature students drop out. They struggle to cope with the demands and rigors of college, and drop out to avoid feelings of anxiety and failure. Institutional Integration Spady (1971) used Durkheim’s 1951 model of social integration and his 1961 study of suicide to understand dropouts from higher education. Spady found that dropout decisions were greatly influenced by the extent to which students were committed to their institutions. In turn, this commitment was influenced by the degree to which students were satisfied by their social integration, primarily in terms of newly established friendships, and by their academic performances. In his 1965 study at the University of Chicago, Spady found that friendships evolved out of student interactions on campus, in particular, through extracurricular activities and interactions that provided for involvement with the opposite sex. Further, students who remained in college interacted regularly with their professors, had relatively high self-esteem, enjoyed family support, developed on-campus friendships, and had a stronger institutional commitment (Spady, 1971).

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Tinto (1975) developed the theory of college-student retention upon which most subsequent theories and studies are based. He argued that students who are institutionally integrated are retained while students who are institutionally isolated or detached withdraw. He argued against previous retention studies that claimed students leave college because of individual flaws, an inability to produce college-level work, an unwillingness to focus their time and energies on academics, or a lack of motivation to remain in school. He also criticized sociologists who theorized that sociological factors and forces affect student retention. These studies indicated that social success and failure, class systems and privileges, economics, environmental forces on student behavior, social elitism and its influences on schools, and individual student qualities affected student attrition (Tinto, 1993). While each previous theory contributed to the understanding of student retention, Tinto believed that an organizational approach would provide more insight. He agreed with Spady’s (1971) view of institutional commitment, but he believed that the interactions between students and administrators, faculty, staff, and fellow students, had the highest impact upon retention:

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. . . the process of dropout from college can be viewed as a longitudinal process of interactions between the individual and the academic and social systems of the college during which a person’s experiences in those systems (as measured by his normative and structural integration) continually modify his goal and institutional commitments in ways which lead to persistence and/or to varying forms of dropout. (Tinto, 1975, p. 94) Students arrive at their post-secondary institutions with differences in family backgrounds, academic skills and abilities, previous school experiences, external responsibilities, and reasons for enrolling. However, once in college, their academic and/or social integration becomes more important than these original variables (Tinto, 1975; Tinto, 1993). Academic performance and formal relationships with faculty and staff influence integration into educational institutions. As academic performance and interaction with faculty and staff increase, so does the rate of retention. Socially, students who are involved in and are satisfied with social programs, and who form

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relationships with other students, are more likely to remain in college (Tinto, 1975; Tinto, 1993). Organizational Responsibility Tinto (1993) further suggested that student integration is a function of the educational system; therefore, retention is an organizational responsibility. It is his contention that, “Whatever the particular view, all agree that the institution, in its behavioral and normative manifestations, has as much to do with the failure of students as do the students themselves” (Tinto, 1993, p. 91). Students may not engage in academic or social activities or find meaningful relationships on their own. Institutions can foster retention by nurturing student integration and providing opportunities for such engagement. Tinto (1999) proposed that colleges provide unambiguous and consistent information about their requirements, systems of support, methods to help students feel like valuable members of their colleges, and assistance in their academic learning. Academic and Social Involvement Pascarella and Terenzini (1980) examined Tinto’s theory to determine its predictive validity. Their multi- dimensional instrument tested the major components of Tinto’s model. The researchers found that five main aspects

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of Tinto’s model predicted retention: First, student-peer interactions, second, interactions with faculty members, third, faculty demonstrations of concern for student academic development and their own teaching skills, fourth, academic and intellectual development, and fifth, institutional commitment and commitment to their goals. Pascarella and Terenzini (1980) also found that students who were involved in the social and academic components of their colleges were more likely to remain in school than those who were less involved. Pascarella and Chapman (1983) applied Tinto’s (1975) model to three types of post-secondary institutions: 4-year residential institutions, 4-year commuter institutions, and 2-year residential institutions. They hypothesized that “. . . the ways in which social and academic integration influence commitments and, thereby, persistence, differ significantly at residential versus commuter institutions” (p. 88). They also tested the effects of students’ background variables in terms of their relationship to other variables within the study. Consistent with Spady (1971), institutional and goal commitment were significant influences on retention at all institutions. Institutional commitment was stronger at the 4-year schools, and in particular, where students maintained residence. Consistent

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with Tinto (1975), commitment was strongly influenced by social integration and directly influenced persistence. Goal attainment was more significant at the 2-year schools where social opportunities are far less likely. Student background traits were more significant for students at commuter schools. Bean (1980) developed a model of student attrition from studies regarding workplace turnover in non-academic organizations. He argued that the earlier theories of Spady (1970) and Tinto (1975) lacked clear definitions of variables that prevented a path analysis, and therefore, meaningful conclusions could not be reached. Bean (1980) found, as did Spady (1970) and Tinto (1975), that institutional commitment and structural integration were the key factors for both men and women, accounting for 47% and 29% of the variance respectively. Other factors varied between men and women as to what influenced commitment. Bean (1980) stated that performance for women, in terms of past academic achievement (including both high school and college), was the second leading predictor of dropping out, followed by membership in campus organizations, and a student’s beliefs that her education would help her find meaningful employment. The men of the study were more likely to be committed to their institution when their

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grade point averages were high, they were satisfied with being college students, they believed that college was developing them as individuals, and they believed that transferring to another institution was not a viable option. Astin’s (1999) Student Involvement Theory supports previous retention studies that concluded student involvement is related to retention. He argued that “. . . the greater the student’s involvement in college, the greater will be the amount of student learning and personal development” (p. 529). Greater learning and development enhances students’ participation in their colleges. Agreeing with Tinto (1975), Astin (1999) stated that while student characteristics affect retention, academic institutions can increase retention by focusing all policies and procedures on enhancing student involvement. Community College Students and Integration Integration is complex for community college students. They do not often have the same reasons for attending college as do four-year students, and community colleges do not tend to offer the same types of academic or social opportunities to allow for integration (Tinto, 1993). Nevertheless, integration is important in regards to retention. “Simply put, involvement matters, and at no

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point does it matter more than during the first year of college when student attachments are so tenuous and the pull of the institution still so weak” (Tinto, 1999, p. 6) Academic Integration Academic integration is complex since many community college students attend their colleges for reasons other than degree attainment (Metz, 2004). Most students are not enrolled with the intention of transferring to a four-year institution. More than 55% enroll for obtaining an associate’s degree or a certificate of completion, and others for improving job skills, for the sake of personal interest, or to determine whether or not they wish to engage in further academic study (Mohammadi, 1994; Provasnik & Planty, 2008; Wild & Ebbers, 2002; Yindra & Brenner, 2002; Zhai & Monzon, 2001). This is an important distinction from four-year institutions for which retention is typically based on graduation rates (Neutzling, 2003; Tinto, 1993). Community college retention means degree completion for some students and goal attainment for others (Mohammadi, 1994). Therefore, typical retention statistics based on graduation may not accurately reflect student achievement or community college effectiveness (Neutzling, 2003; Yindra & Brenner, 2002). However, students who intend to transfer to a four-year college or university tend to be

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retained in community college more often than students with other goals (Freer-Weiss, 2004; Hawley & Harris, 2005; Zhai & Monzon, 2001). Academic integration and retention. Studies consistently show that academic integration is a significant variable in community college student retention (Escobedo, 2007; Halpin, 1990; Pascarella & Chapman, 1983; Woosley, 2004). Retention and persistence may be more positively influenced by student opportunities for academic integration than for social integration, particularly for poorly performing students (Ryan & Glenn, 2004). Escobedo (2007) reported that 78% of students who met regularly with student retention specialists and were enrolled in study skills courses were retained. Ryan and Glenn (2004) also found that learning strategy seminars significantly improved retention. Pascarella and Chapman (1983) operationalized academic integration in terms of grade point average, hours spent studying, non-assigned books read, peer conversations on academic topics, cultural events attended, informal contacts with faculty, and participation in honors and career development programs. They found that academic integration had an indirect effect on persistence “through its direct effect on institutional commitment” (p. 98).

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Students and faculty. Community college students do not often meet with faculty outside of the classroom (Astin, 1999; Tinto, 1993). Only 20% of students discuss personal concerns with a professor, and 80% do not discuss career matters or socialize informally with professors more than once per semester (Hagedorn, Maxwell, Rodriguez, Hocevar, & Fillpot, 2000). Yet student-faculty interaction contributes significantly to student retention (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980). Faculty concern for student development and faculty interaction with students enhance students’ involvement with their colleges (Halpin, 1990). Students can sometimes feel intimidated by faculty or presume that instructors are not concerned with their personal or academic well-being (Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008) which may hinder student-faculty interaction. Faculty members also tend to believe that they interact with students more regularly than students do. Nearly 60% of faculty members believe they often or very often have interaction with students, whereas roughly 40% of students believe they have frequent interaction with faculty members (Community College Survey, 2008). This difference may inhibit faculty-based outreach. Research suggests retention is increased by faculty-based outreach programs or faculty-based academic advising

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(Andrade, 2007; Escobedo, 2007; Hagedorn, et al., 2000; McArthur, 2005). The importance of such advising may be the relatively frequent interaction with faculty members in both formal and informal situations and not the advice itself (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980). Part-time faculty. Retention is affected by student-faculty interaction. Therefore, community college students are at a disadvantage. Community college students do not have the same opportunities to engage with full-time faculty as four-year college students do. Sixty-seven percent of community college faculty members are employed part-time and 33% full-time, whereas 28% of four-year faculty members are employed part-time and 72% full-time (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Involvement between students and part-time faculty tends to be minimal because often neither is present on campus for reasons other than classroom instruction (Astin, 1999). Calcagno, Bailey, Jenkins, Kienzl, and Leinbach, (2007) reported that students in associate’s degree programs were negatively affected by increases in the proportion of part-time to full-time faculty.

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Social Integration Community college students have fewer opportunities to engage in social activities than four-year students. Community college students are on campus for brief periods of time, mostly only to attend classes, so their ability and desire to make social connections is limited (Chaves, 2006; Hagedorn, et al., 2000; Tinto, 1993). They also tend to not feel connected to their colleges or develop a sense of belonging (Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008). However, student retention is positively associated with social support, the social environment on campus, and students’ feelings of being valuable members of their institutions (Kelly, Kendrick, Newgent, & Lucas, 2007; Tinto, 1999). This is even more the case when students develop positive interactions with diverse peers (Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008), or faculty members in social settings (Tinto, 1993). Students in four-year institutions can create a sense of community and belonging through memberships in fraternities, sororities, by living on campus, and by joining clubs, campus organizations, or support groups (Bean, 1980; Jacobs & Archie, 2008; Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008; Pascarella & Chapman, 1983; Potts, Schultz, & Foust, 2004).

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Social interaction and retention. Retention is positively associated with living on campus (Astin, 1999), yet very few community colleges offer housing. Students who live on campus participate in student clubs and organizations are retained at higher rates than commuter students (Woosley, 2004), but these opportunities are rare for community college students. Less than 20% of students join in formal activities with other students one or more times per week, and more than 50% never participate in any social activities (Hagedorn, et al., 2000). Social interaction is related to retention for community college students even though there are few formal opportunities to achieve it (Tinto, 1993). It may be less related to retention than academic integration since many community college students do not live on campus (Bean & Metzner, 1985; Tinto, 1993), or expect to make social connections at their institutions (Pascarella & Chapman, 1983). Students may also create informal social networks or develop meaningful friendships that assist in their campus integration (Hagedorn, et al., 2000). Learning communities. Tinto (1999) suggested that students participating in learning communities, group-oriented study, and orientations would likely integrate into their institutions

Full document contains 116 pages
Abstract: This study compares community college students' perceptions of their academic readiness before and after they participated in community college coursework. Students enroll in community colleges for many reasons but many drop-out before reaching their goals. High rates of attrition suggest that students may not accurately assess their levels of readiness for post-secondary study. This may lead to students dropping at least one class or out of college entirely. Students were randomly selected from nine community colleges in the Central Valley of California; 759 responded. A 60 item survey was utilized to gain data about the subjects. Students generally had some ambivalence about their initial preparedness. Students' perceptions of initial readiness significantly declined in most cases once they began their classes.