Alumni Engaging Students from Under-Served Groups in Southern Appalachia

By Williams, Mitchell R.; Leatherwood, Laura et al. | Community College Enterprise, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Alumni Engaging Students from Under-Served Groups in Southern Appalachia


Williams, Mitchell R., Leatherwood, Laura, Byrd, Laura, Boyd, Monica S., Pennington, Kevin, Community College Enterprise


The study explores how alumni can help community colleges in Southern Appalachia to create greater access for people in groups which are traditionally under-served by higher education. Semi-structured interviews conducted with alumni program directors and admissions officers at seven community colleges in the Southern Appalachian Region explore how they use alumni to recruit and retain students from non-dominant groups as well as students from generationally poor families. Examples of "best practices" illustrate ways alumni can help recruit, motivate, and retain students from historically under-served groups.

"Why do so many students with high ability not go to college? We find two reasons identified consistently by investigators: lack of money and lack of desire."

Ralph R. Fields, The Community College Movement, 1962

Introduction

The community college has always been concerned with increasing access to higher education. While community colleges now serve more students than any other sector of the higher education community in the United States, it is clear that low income and many minority students are less likely to enroll in college; and once in college, they are less likely to complete degrees (Bailey & Morest, 2006). The situation has not improved significantly for low income, first generation, and non-dominant students from rural areas of the Southern Appalachian Region. The present study examines the role community college alumni can play in increasing access to higher education from traditionally under-served groups in Southern Appalachia, particularly with regard to the "lack of desire" barrier mentioned in Fields' quotation.

Historically, community colleges have had a difficult time initiating and developing strong alumni programs (Boyd, Williams, & Pennington, 2009). Alumni programs are, however, growing in number and expanding the functions they perform to support community colleges (Pastorella, 2003) as alumni acknowledge the value of the education and training they received and show a desire to help others recognize the value of a community college education.

Indeed, in addition to financial support, alumni serve community colleges as mentors to current students, academic program board members, and volunteers in efforts such as welcoming new students on the first day of each semester (Boyd, Williams, & Pennington, 2009; Pastorella, 2003). Connecting alumni to the college through frequent contact with alumni and engaging them in community college activities seems to be the most important mission of community college alumni programs. As Pastorella (2003) noted, "Engaged alumni give, then ask what more they can do to support the alumni program and the college. To keep their interest and spirit alive, having a definite mission is a must" (p. 78).

For over three decades, studies have identified the importance of community colleges for accessibility to higher education in Appalachia (Cottingham & Cooper, 1975). The present study examines whether community college alumni programs can help to recruit students from traditionally underserved groups in Southern Appalachia. Duncan (1999), in a study on the persistence of poverty in rural America, concluded that people who escaped poverty did so through education, and those who broke the cycle of poverty did so through college attendance. Historically, that attendance began at the community college, where the open door admission policy allows anyone who can benefit from the curriculum offered to attend. The community college offers low tuition, courses offered at convenient times and locations, student support services, and a student-friendly learning environment for everyone (Cohen & Brawer, 2008).

Today, the community college has a responsibility to offer the hope of breaking the cycle of poverty for a new generation of Americans. The problem is that not everyone is able to take advantage of the community college open door policy. …

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