Ways Community Colleges Can Define, Measure, and Improve Student Success

January 11, 2023 Watermark Insights

Community colleges play a vital role in creating student opportunities while offering more affordable education than four-year institutions. In a time where opportunity hinges on education, improving student success at these institutions is critical. 

High student retention and engagement rates demonstrate an institution's ability to deliver on its promise to provide quality education. Measurably boosting your students' success can be simple with the right tools. We've crafted this guide to student success in community college so you can better define, measure, and improve student retention and engagement at your institution. 

The Growing Focus on College Completion

Today, more than ever before, education is a crucial part of job success. College education increases career satisfaction and stability and strengthens the impact students can make on their communities. Colleges and universities enable graduates to earn more, have a higher chance of finding a job position, feel greater career satisfaction, build strong connections, and prepare for the future. 

In 2021, graduates with an associate's degree made just over $150 more per week than those with a high school diploma, and bachelor's degree holders made over $520 more than those without higher education. With such impressive benefits, it's no wonder there is a growing focus on college completion. 

However, despite the economic and career growth graduates can see, many institutions face low retention numbers, meaning students are either dropping out or transferring to another institution. Nearly 25% of first-year students drop out within one year, and almost 40% of undergraduate students drop out. These numbers impact colleges and universities and affect campus initiatives and retention rates, leading to lower profits

Barriers to College Completion

Obtaining a college degree is challenging for many students as they face new obstacles. Many factors can inhibit student success, both on and off campus. Addressing these concerns will take time but can positively impact your students and institutions in the long run. 

A lack of structure could be a significant barrier for students to overcome. With room to deviate from the path to graduation, it can be easy to fall off track and become unmotivated to catch up to speed. Additionally, giving too many options can be overwhelming and lead students to make decisions that do not benefit their academic careers. Simplifying transfer and program structures could ease student concerns and help them stay on track. 

Other barriers students face include:

  • Mental health concerns: Students facing anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns may struggle to meet college expectations. Students can flounder under perceived pressure without the proper health resources to receive support. 
  • Institutional costs: Student loans and tuition costs have long been barriers for higher education students. Students without sufficient financial aid or the ability to recover the cost of their education may determine that the instruction is not worth the time, money, or effort. 
  • Lack of preparation: Many students are graduating high school without adequate preparation for the demands of higher education. Some students lack proper study skills, others may struggle to handle an increased workload, and some have to take additional non-credit remedial classes to make up for knowledge gaps or academic and developmental losses. 
  • Inadequate family support: Family engagement positively affects student success and engagement. However, only some students have a support system able to offer resources, advice, and encouragement. Students who feel a lack of support off and on campus may refrain from putting their best foot forward toward their education. 

The Importance of Community Colleges

Community colleges play a vital role in higher education. These institutions typically focus on providing career-oriented programs to prepare students to transfer to a four-year institution or enter the workforce. Community colleges provide program skills and academic knowledge that enable graduates to accept career positions or lay a foundation for their higher education. 

Additionally, the low cost of community college makes higher education more affordable for those with low-income families. After two years, graduates can obtain an associate's degree that exemplifies their satisfactory work. An associate's degree also enables them to transfer to other colleges or universities with higher education credits under their belts but without massive student debt. 

Community colleges also cater to a broader pool of students. Although students of any age, gender, race, and background can attend four-year institutions, community colleges are an excellent guided pathway for those in different stages of life. Military veterans, single parents, immigrants, and nontraditional students are more likely to see community colleges meeting their educational needs. 

According to a 2022 fact sheet provided by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 60% of community college students are female, 27% are Hispanic, 12% are Black, and 36% are between the ages of 22 and 39. The average age of a community college student is 27, while the median age is 23. Many students recognize that community colleges offer them a bridge to higher education. 

How Community Colleges Can Define Student Success

We often describe student success as graduation or program completion, but there are many other ways to define student success in community college. Beyond classroom advancements, you can look to thriving campus initiatives to shape your definition of student success. 

Institutional initiatives affect the entire student body and begin with the incoming classes. These initiatives can be program-based, serving student needs within specific areas of study, or population-based, supporting students of underrepresented or marginalized groups. Additionally, some initiatives can aim to bolster other, already established, initiatives; these scaling-up initiatives can significantly enhance student engagement. 

Evaluating your institution's current initiatives allows you to reimagine the metrics of student success—and how to continually measure and improve.

How to Measure Student Success in Community College

After defining student success, you must measure your current data and identify any gaps or barriers that impede success. Measuring student success in community college goes beyond looking at graduation or program completion rates. 

Ways to measure student success could include:

  • Course evaluations.
  • Student self-assessments.
  • Attendance at orientations or training sessions.
  • Activity in learning communities.
  • Course registration activity.
  • Commuter benefits program enrollment.
  • College-readiness course participation and completion.
  • Dedication to mentorship programs.
  • Interest in advising practices.


Data collection will be your best asset when trying to improve student success, and the more information you have to work with, the better equipped you'll be to drive change at your institution. If you're identifying barriers that prevent students from reaching graduation and success, you must work to create a bridge to close the gap. 

You can find pain points in many areas across campus and new ways to gather information. Comparing current data with student surveys and self-assessments can help you better understand the changes students want to see, allowing you to work together to craft new solutions. 

How Community Colleges Can Improve Student Success

With many different measurements and definitions of student success in community college, it likely isn't surprising that there are many ways to improve student success. Your institution may already have some of these ideas in place, but using our guide, you can reevaluate how you use them and whether you should improve your processes. 

Offer a Student Success Course

Student success courses help students hone personal and academic skills required for degree completion. These courses can better prepare students for the educational environment. Students not equipped for the rigor of collegiate-level classes can benefit from an introductory course that will familiarize them with the institution's expectations and resources. This way, when they discover new barriers, they may be better equipped to overcome them. 

Provide Registration Assistance

Students can get lost in the registration process maze, which can be an excellent time to identify at-risk learners who are considering transferring or dropping out. If students have an unclear graduation path, they may need clarification about which courses they need to take to meet completion requirements. 

Additionally, they may need help understanding the importance of taking a prerequisite course or an introductory-level class that provides a foundation for other learning materials. This can lead to students taking courses they don't need and losing money, time, and effort in the process, which equals frustration with your institution. 

You can combat this by providing registration assistance. Developing a registration office can give students somewhere to go when they need help building their schedules. The registration assistance process also identifies risk indicators such as holds, late fees, midterm grades, residential status, GPA, and undecided majors. When you pinpoint these indicators, you can take action to bring students back on track at a pivotal time in their education, ensuring that they complete their programs. 

Make Connections During the First Year

A student's first year on campus is the most critical for their academic journey. During this time, students will refine their ideas about higher education, face new challenges, meet new groups of peers and friends, leave behind their high school and family support systems, and set the tone for the rest of their time at an institution. 

Make Connections During the First Year

Students who arrive at your institution feeling support and belonging are more likely to succeed. Offering first-year seminar classes, developing clubs, and fostering a sense of well-being and belonging on campus can help these students better face mental challenges ahead. Encouraging students to make connections can also help them to focus on their academics while having more positive feelings about your institution. 

Ensure Adequate Academic Planning

Academic planning can help students make institutional connections that drive their success. Academic planning is more encompassing than offering tutoring or writing center service, although these could also boost student engagement and success. Through educational planning, students can receive tools that help them:

  • Overcome financial hardships.
  • Develop leadership opportunities.
  • Gain career development.
  • Hone study skills.
  • Build a resume.
  • Make connections on campus.
  • Craft a graduation pathway.
  • Find mental health services.

Enable Early Assessments

Early assessments can be a great way to monitor student progress. When you administer self-assessments, surveys, and evaluations early in a student's academic career, you can better gauge the support they need. 

Course evaluations and assessments can help you quickly identify curriculum and program structure pain points. Listening to student feedback can enable your instructors to reshape their courses and evaluate their teaching methods to ensure they use the best and most effective practices. 

Additionally, cumulative assessments can help gauge whether students are falling behind. For example, if you notice a student who has been performing well throughout multiple semesters suddenly receiving low scores, missing classes, or showing disinterest in their education, you know to step in and uncover the challenges they're facing. You can track trends among departments, programs, and students to identify where students may be falling off track. 

Develop a Mentor Program

Mentors serve as a helping hand, offering valuable academic, professional, and personal advice. Your students could benefit from implementing a mentorship program that connects them with professionals who currently work or have experience in their desired career field or industry. Faculty members, alumni, and senior students can serve as excellent mentors for new students. 

As new students navigate your institution, they can turn to their trusted mentor when they need guidance. Along with allowing for better access to industry secrets, campus resources, and a support system, many mentor relationships become lifelong friendships. Mentorship success coaching can motivate students to perform better and enable you to create more holistic experiences for every student. 

Discover How to Support Student Success in Community College From Watermark

At Watermark, people drive us. Our team of professionals is dedicated to delivering higher education institutions with unique solutions that boost student success and prepare learners for a lifetime of productivity and learning. 

Watermark Student Success & Engagement is an all-encompassing software solution your institution can use to monitor and track student progress and identify pain points in your curriculum, campus culture, and experiences. With our software, you can create holistic guided pathways for each student and take advantage of intuitive, advanced reporting. You can easily identify at-risk students and connect with them during their critical periods to bring them back on track. 

With Watermark Course Evaluations & Surveys, you can discover how community colleges can measure student success in the classroom. You can use your student's direct feedback to uncover new ways to design programs and structure curricula to meet their needs. 

Request a demo of Watermark solutions to bring innovation to your institution and better define, measure, and improve student success on campus.

Discover How to Support Student Success in Community College From Watermark

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