Defining Academic Support Services in Community Colleges
Last year, Ithaka S+R, along with a team of outstanding advisors from a variety of community colleges and college systems, embarked on the first phase of the Community College Academic Support Ecosystems (CCASE) project, a new research initiative to examine and develop recommendations for how academic support services can more effectively support student success. The project was inspired by earlier findings from the Community College Libraries and Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASSS) project, which found that many community college students are not well aware of the academic support services that are offered by their institution or how to effectively utilize them. While the CCLASSS project continues to explore these issues from a student perspective, the CCASE project will address these issues from an administrative one by closely studying three key areas:
- What types of academic support services community colleges need;
- How academic support services are currently organized, funded, and staffed to address these needs, and what the key success factors, trade offs, opportunities, and challenges are associated with the organization of these services; and
- How the library can best organize itself to develop and sustain programs or services that contribute to the community college’s mission and student success.
Characterizing “academic support services” has led us to various interpretations and operational definitions. Services provided to students generally tend to fall within two different service areas: Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. However, the area in which a specific support service falls varies substantially depending on institutional context. As organizational structures vary based on size, population, geographic environments (i.e. urban, suburban, and rural communities), academic offerings, and other factors, this wide variation provides a lack of uniformity of support services between community colleges. There also appears to be a lack of consistency in the way in which department areas, support services, and/or administrative positions are named between community colleges. Due to these inconsistencies, it is perhaps unsurprising that students experience difficulties in developing an awareness of and effectively navigating essential support services.
While Academic Affairs departments have historically been tied to the mission of the college and are more closely associated with formal, in-class learning, Student Affairs departments are typically associated with all other services that fall outside of the formal curriculum and are used by students to support their goals outside of the classroom in order to bolster their academic performance. Academic advising, for example, has generally been found to report to either Academic Affairs or Student Affairs. Regardless of where the service falls, there are often similarities in what the service offers to students across community colleges. Academic advising, generally speaking, offers assistance to students in building an individualized plan of study, making decisions regarding major selection and course registration, and guiding students in their academic career. While academic advising is closely aligned with the academic mission of the institution and certainly directly linked to the formal curriculum, it is neither course nor curriculum-specific. The ambiguous nature of academic advising vastly contrasts with core Academic Affairs services such as tutoring, which is curriculum-specific and helps students with particular academic courses to enhance their performance within these individual classes.
With these complexities in mind, we are left with a number of important factors to consider in operationally defining “academic support services” to best understand the array of services offered to students across these two functional areas. The lack of uniformity within organizational structures has become central to our understanding of the various services offered by community colleges. Defining “academic support services” is vital to not only our understanding of the organizational and funding aspects of student support services within community colleges but also to our understanding of the success factors, opportunities, and challenges within the organization of these services. As our work unfolds, developing an operational definition for “academic support services” and conducting subsequent research will help to illuminate how the library and its services work in tandem with other support services, what can be done to increase awareness and utilization of these services, and how to ultimately support the mission of community colleges in enabling student success.