Joan Hope is the editor of Dean & Provost, a sister publication of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners, by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.

At one time, officials at Johnson County Community College, which enrolls many adult learners, could take an “If we build it, they will come” approach to recruitment. In fact, the college didn’t have a recruiter until 2007, said Paul Kyle, the dean of student services and success. But officials realized recruiting was necessary. And they needed to do a better job retaining students.

Now Kyle and officials from across the institution are creating a strategic plan that integrates enrollment and academic goals. Officials on the academic and services side realized they had to work together.

“You do your thing and we’ll do our thing and hope it works out” wasn’t an effective approach, Kyle said.

The strategic planning initiative requires culture change to get units to collaborate — both to create the plan and to pursue cross-division efforts to achieve goals.

Kyle heads the enrollment team for the strategic planning process. His team includes officials from academics, curriculum, marketing and other units. The enrollment team is focusing on a comprehensive recruitment plan, and the academic team is looking at ways to boost retention. But they realize those go hand in hand, Kyle said. Officials on all the committees focus on the question “How does it impact students?”

“It’s not about us, what is convenient for us in terms of what we offer. It’s about maintaining the quality of education,” Kyle said.

JCCC’s planning and culture change initiatives are driven in part by hard economic facts. Students are asking “What’s in it for me?” Kyle said. Officials need to do a better job of helping them to see how college will help them and their families down the road.

And officials also need to do a better job interacting with students early on — thinking in terms of retaining students while they are still prospects.

Kyle and his colleagues are determining what they can do to prepare students before they get to the classroom and to help them understand the institutional culture before their first day of school. When students drop out, 80 percent of the time the cause is not in the classroom, Kyle said.

To retain students, officials must first convince them that they are capable of going to college and that they have the assets to succeed. Students ask, “Do people like me go here?” If they aren’t clear that the answer is yes, one little thing can cause them to falter, Kyle said.

To improve prospective students’ first interactions with the college, Kyle is creating purposeful activities that engage them. Research shows that if a student connects with another student, a faculty member and a staff member, the college has a 44 percent better chance of retaining him.

So when prospects visit JCCC, officials try to help them make those connections. Visitors are given brightly colored backpacks to wear around campus. Faculty and staff members are encouraged to say hello to anyone they see wearing those backpacks.

Admissions staff members also guide visitors to areas where they will meet a staff member, a faculty member and a student. If all three of those people say the same thing, one might say it in a way that the prospective student hears best, Kyle said.

“It’s relational,” Kyle said about recruiting and retaining students. “That’s not always easy.”

Also, when prospective students visit the success center, an advocate sits down to speak with them. Some adults might not want to go on the typical campus tour. The advocate will help the student begin to design a plan, Kyle said. Or if an orientation is about to start, the advocate will invite the student to participate. And before the prospect leaves, the advocate will help him plan his next step for enrolling.

Help students adjust to institution culture

If adult learners can cross the gap from their culture of origin to the culture of the institution, they have better chances of success in college, Kyle said. There are two questions they need to be able to answer to make the transition:

  • Do people like me go here? “If they can’t answer that, they probably won’t come or stay,” Kyle said. If they enroll, they will look for reasons why they shouldn’t be in college after all.
  • Do I have the assets to succeed? Many adults juggle school with work, and must get children to school every morning. “If you can do that, you can do everything,” Kyle said. But the students might not have realized how they can apply their skills to going to class and studying.
  • They also need to understand that college officials aren’t asking them to leave their families behind, he said.

For more information, you may contact Paul Kyle at pkyle@jccc.edu.