Combining Skills Remediation with Advising Support to Help Students Acclimate, Persist, and Succeed

Four college students walking down a hallway while talking

In our cultural imagination, the greatest challenge of our epic journeys comes at the end of the story when our protagonist confronts the monster blocking the trail, faces the raging storm while clinging to the ship’s wheel, struggles to pull in oxygen-thin breaths at the peak of Everest. The story builds to this final confrontation—always at the end, not at the beginning.

I disagree. The first several steps in the door, the first week, the first quarter or semester when the curtain has just risen on a college experience–this, I suggest, may be when success is most in peril. Many of us face the biggest hurdle at the moment of entry, at the beginning of our journey.

But if you remember your first day of kindergarten or that of a child of yours, stepping inside the doors for the first time is a tremendously challenging experience. Traumatizing even. Letting go of a loved one’s hand and moving into a world of strangers in a place very different from home is a monumental task. No one really knows you or what your experience outside of school has been.

Children usually don’t have a choice—they’re going to school. Adults, as the data suggests, quite often hit the “abort” button and exit the building. They do not stick around to complete college. If you’re reading this, you’re likely familiar with retention and completion rates nationally or at least at your institution. They’re usually not annual report-worthy numbers.

A variety of factors influence drop-out decisions. But let’s just consider the kindergartner for a moment. Ideally, when a child goes to school, that child is greeted by someone who immediately demonstrates caring. This signals to the child that a few basic needs are met:

  • Someone knows your name and uses it
  • Someone “sees” you: knows if you’re lost or need some guidance
  • Someone welcomes you and lets you know that this new place is for you

Students entering college are not children. But they are navigating a new and, to the uninitiated, quite confusing environment. They may have been away from school for years, they may lack confidence in their skills, and they may be the first in their family to attempt higher education. They may be downright frightened.

At my college, we were noticing potential students leaving the building before we could establish any kind of relationship with them. “Cracks” between testing and career advisors allowed students opportunities to slip away. Appointments to come back were rarely kept. Some students had difficulty getting the help they needed to register and to become familiar with our learning management system. Many of these students also had low placement scores. It could be argued that the message being sent was “we don’t care” or “you are not prepared for college.” Instead of receiving a warm welcome, anxious students were directed down seemingly endless hallways from one impersonal office to the next. The courage it took to enter the building, take a placement test, and be directed to another stranger may have exhausted the meager reserves of confidence students arrived with.

Our Transitions Lab began in March 2012 with a commitment to practice a model of advising that welcomes students from a range of sources but mainly from our Testing Center. Our team (two part-time advisors and me) encouraged testing center technicians to walk students directly to us in the middle of our library. There, we have conversations with each student about their backgrounds, their goals, and any possible risks or obstacles. We spend about 45 minutes with students who are interested in enrolling on the spot in our non-college credit course for $20 that provides academic skills remediation in areas the student chooses and a free placement re-test if desired. We don’t have offices and we don’t take appointments; students just walk up.

We can over-emphasize our numbers, such as 90% of our students who re-test improve their placement (over 550 classes have been tested out of) and Transitions students in comparison studies are out-performing their counterparts with similar placement scores. We collect a lot of quantitative and qualitative information on individuals and groups. The data suggests that what Southeast Community College has invested in is paying off for students and the college. The value for me, as an educator and as a human being, is to participate in the relational work necessary to make my college a place where students who might have reason to fear and distrust learn to feel comfortable and engage in learning and growth. Studies have shown how social class influences the ways in which students navigate or get lost in college (Stuber 2011). Some would call the work we do “hand-holding.” This ignores the educational debt that has accumulated from the social, educational, and economic history of this country (Ladson-Billings 2006). These obstacles are very real to students, but may not be visible to many of us inside our own schools.

Most educators observe events we cannot explain with our own experience, like how a young student who has raised his little sister, held jobs since he was 16, and has a good high school GPA needs to be walked to the registration desk to turn in his fall form. We can’t easily understand why this seemingly routine act is so daunting. And yet it is. That student lacked the confidence to approach one more stranger, to run one more bureaucratic gauntlet on his own. With a small assist from one of us, he will take the next remarkable step toward realizing his aspirations. Once past the hurdle, this student will persist. This transformation happens one student and one step at a time.

Here’s a sample from one of our advisor’s daily journal entries:

  • Paulina is back from Mexico and ready to study. She wanted to start school in October but she is pre-foundations in writing (12) and reading (44.) She also could improve her math (PA 30) as she completed 2 years of algebra in high school. She was very interested in working with our writing and math tutors, so we may want to email the schedule out when we get it.
  • He signed up for Quick Start after coming from testing. He wants to get his classes done at SCC as soon as possible so he can transfer. He is currently in math fundamentals with a 40. He will be visiting with Charles as he is a vet from New Jersey.
  • Came in with his dad from Valley. He is planning to start school at Milford in Jan. either in ELEC or HVAC. He had taken the ACT so asked dad to find his scores. He needs to improve his writing (42) and math (A-26) scores to get into the programs.
  • Has attempted college 3 times. Michelle brought her up as she needs to work on her math. I also noted that she should work on her writing. She is registered for ENGL0985 so will study writing right away and test next Friday. She will then study her math during the fall quarter.
  • She was our student in July 2013. Since then she was diagnosed with bipolar and depression. She is on meds now and ready to start school. Kat brought Christina over. She is pre-foundations in math (19) and would also like to work on her writing score (52.) Plans to start school in January.
  • Shelby just graduated in ECED but her dad transferred his military benefits to her so she is staying in school and looking into the social work program with SCC/UNO. She signed up to work on her math with us (PA37) and she needs to get through MATH 1100 (Intermediate Algebra.) Sweet girl.

When we first started this advising, it would not be uncommon for a student to stumble into our space in tears after being directed all over campus. Transitions advisors work to build relationships with all other advisors and student services staff. They have to. We’ve been given permission to move within and across these other offices, and it’s been slow going at times. But now students are getting connected and guided through the rough first stages of college. It’s a start, at least, toward making that epic first step one of many more on students’ journey in our school.

One of the tools we use to gauge the level at which students function is MyFoundationsLab. It has been instrumental in helping us place students correctly in math, writing and other classes. Read about our usage of it in my full case study.


*Placement score cut-offs for credit-level courses at SCC:

  • Math: COMPASS Pre-Algebra: 58 or above; Algebra: 36 or above; ACT 19 or above
  • English: COMPASS Writing: 52 or above; Reading: 61 or above; ACT 18 or above


About the Author
Phip Ross

Phip Ross, Ph.D

Phip Ross has been a high school and community college English teacher for 20 years. He earned his doctorate in education in 2013. A video piece of his dissertation can be viewed here: A Fulbright Scholar (2007), he co-authored Far Beyond Words: Stories of Military Interpreting in Iraq with college student Sulaiman Murad. His collaboration at SCC on Transitions was recognized by NCIA as an Outstanding Initiative for Student Perseverance and Retention (2014). Most recently he is engaged in the creation of the Nebraska Developmental Education Consortium to support and connect teachers across the state with a conference slated for October 2016. Phip credits the Nebraska Writing Project and the National Writing Project for helping sustain his commitment to education.