Report Proposes New Community College Library Roles

Ithaka S+R recently released the third phase of its multi-part Community College Libraries and Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASSS) project, which examines student goals and challenges, and how community colleges and their libraries can work together to serve them. The resulting report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” affirms that while libraries can—and do—play a critical role in student success initiatives, they are not always the partners that come to mind first.

Ithaka S+R logoAs higher education costs rise and the population of nontraditional students grows, the need for student support services on campuses nationwide is increasing as well. Ithaka S+R recently released the third phase of its multi-part Community College Libraries and Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASSS) project, which examines student goals and challenges, and how community colleges and their libraries can work together to serve them. The resulting report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” affirms that while libraries can—and do—play a critical role in student success initiatives, they are not always the partners that come to mind first. College administrators can amplify the reach of student services by bringing libraries to the table, the CCLASSS team found—but they need to ensure that funding and other infrastructure needs are met as well.

The project, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, was led by surveys analyst Melissa Blankstein and manager of surveys and research Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, both of Ithaka S+R’s Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums program, and Dr. Braddlee, dean of learning and technology resources and professor for the Annandale Campus, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

 

ECONOMIC FRAGILITY

LJ ’s recent look at how libraries can meet the need of nontraditional students—those who are older, English language learners, first generation students, or career changers—featured the project’s initial report, “Amplifying Student Voices,” built on a series of interviews with students at seven partner community colleges. Using responses to this initial survey as a guide, in the project’s second phase the CCLASSS team developed a series of service prototypes targeting those issues that could be implemented in libraries. Those prototypes—defined as Social Worker, Loaning Tech, Child Care, Community Advocacy, Privacy, Knowledge Base, Personal Librarian, and Student Showcase—were piloted at partner colleges this fall.

The third phase, and the basis for the new report, was a second survey that went out to nearly 11,000 students in fall 2018. The resulting data offered the CCLASSS investigators an in-depth look at the challenges faced by today’s community college students.

The responses revealed that students’ definitions of success centered not only on career and educational achievement but on personal development and enrichment, and that more than half faced significant challenges around balancing work and school, finances, child care, language barriers, transportation to and from campus, and navigating college resources and services.

“A lot of people wouldn't necessarily think of those as academic challenges, but they clearly are,” said Wolff-Eisenberg. “In order for colleges to help students succeed, they're going to have to address these issues. It's something that some leaders don't necessarily think of as…academic needs, but they ultimately are if they're getting in the way of students succeeding."

While these issues have always been around, said Wolff-Eisenberg, they have ramped up since the 2008 financial crisis. As federal and state funding for higher education is cut, costs are passed along to students, and student grants have been largely replaced by loans.

“At one time it was possible for students to work part-time and complete a college degree with the money they were making and additional funding put toward the cost of their education,” she noted. “Now it’s not even close to possible.” Many of the students interviewed were working multiple jobs and still had trouble making ends meet.

This large qualitative dataset means that the CCLASSS project can document different student demographic subgroups and the challenges they face, which can help pinpoint those who might benefit most from the proposed service interventions—low-income or first-generation students, students of color, student parents, or those with nonbinary gender identities.

It also helps discern where the pain points lie. For example, students may report having access to a laptop, said Braddlee, but they may not have internet access. “Or you may have access to the internet, but you may have it through your phone,” he explained. “You may have it through a data plan and at the beginning of your cycle you're fine, but at the end of your cycle you're capped, or being charged, or throttled. There's a lot of economic fragility among our students."

 

SERVICE WISH LIST

Students responded strongly to service concepts that would address both their curricular and non-curricular needs, including access to technology (Wi-Fi hotspot lending, printers, laptops, multimedia editing tools), childcare, a personal librarian, a social worker, or services to help them navigate college red tape. Many spoke of wanting a single point of contact for school issues like financial aid, registering for classes, advising, personal counseling, and tutoring or other coursework assistance. Other wish list items included learning about privacy and opportunities for community advocacy.

When asked about their college goals, nearly 60 percent of the students interviewed ranked “Gaining knowledge about a specific subject, major, or career” as “extremely important,” more than making more money, choosing or advancing a career, or getting good grades.

“Probably the most encouraging thing I've seen in the data, both in the qualitative interviews and the survey, is the extent to which students are balanced between external goals related to workforce, career, and earnings, and internal goals related to learning and mastery,” said Braddlee. “We get so focused on some of the metrics that we can more easily measure and observe around persistence, graduation, workforce, GPA. It was very encouraging to see how much our students care about their actual learning."

For this survey, when students were asked about the prototype services developed by CCLASSS and where they might be willing to look for them, there was no indication that the project was about the library or library-led. Interviews were held outside the library, and no specific service providers were mentioned. The library was listed as one of about a dozen possible providers on campus where students might be likely to look for new services, in randomized order.

For the most part, noted Wolff-Eisenberg, the library was one of the top choices, along with academic advising offices, writing centers, and tutoring offices—signaling that it is considered a trusted resource by students. “We have a great base of evidence now about the extent to which students would be open to finding these services either in the library or maybe provided digitally by the library in some way,” she told LJ —a finding that surprised the CCLASSS investigators somewhat.

“We developed these services with the idea that we could imagine the library providing them,” she said. “[We thought] it might be a bit of a stretch…. We didn't know how students were going to react. And they responded really favorably.”

"I can't think of any other study where we have a population of 100,000 or more students telling us the things that they need and would like to see coming from our organizations,” said Braddlee, “where those are specific to the library, but where the ideas for the services were not cooked up by the library itself but were done in dialog with the students."

These results will not only hold value for library faculty and staff who decide how to help connect students with what they need, Braddlee told LJ, but should serve as a good advocacy tool when talking with administrators outside the library. “We were pleasantly reassured that students saw the library as a trusted source of information, and a place that they could look to for support and assistance on campus,” he said.

The challenge for institutions, he added, will be to dovetail these student support concepts with existing library services.

"When folks look at the findings they may [wonder] how are they ever going to do these things,” Braddlee said. “It's about where we leverage our existing partnerships, where we use this as an opportunity to have conversations that we wanted to have anyway—that's how we're approaching it. We understand that in our library, and most community college libraries, people are very time constrained and resource constrained. There's no cornucopia full of cash and people to make these things happen. So it's an opportunity to engage in the creative work, looking at the things that the students are telling us and seeing how we align our existing resources, time, and abilities to move in these directions."

The purpose of the project, he added, is to get those conversations started—between libraries and college administration and, critically, potential partners. “A lot of these services are only going to succeed if they have deep partnerships with student affairs in particular, at the college-wide level," noted Wolff-Eisenberg.

And, added Braddlee, “On your campus, if you're having conversations about holistic student support or wraparound services for students, make sure there's somebody from the library at that table."

The CCLASSS survey instrument, interview script, and dataset will be deposited with the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), and later this year Ithaka will be developing a toolkit for other institutions to use, which will be made available under a Creative Commons license.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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