CPCC changes class withdrawal policy

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By: Rodney Barge


The first day of the Spring 2008 semester at CPCC was like a disturbed hornet’s nest. People and cars were buzzing all over campus. Parking could only be found on the top level of the parking deck. Students pleaded in vain to get into full classes.


Fast forward to the week following spring break, and the picture is much different. Rock star parking is available on the first level of the student lot. Plenty of empty seats are available every classroom. Attendance is so poor in some classes that there are hardly enough students for a good game of Parcheesi.


According to Terri Manning, associate vice president of Institutional Research, the current CPCC student withdrawal rate is 22 percent. This statistic means that 22 percent of all seats in every class end up in a withdrawal. “That is almost one in four. Our rate is one of the highest in the country,” she said.  


When students “drop” a class, the withdrawal has an impact on many aspects of college life, Manning said. The withdrawing student’s academic performance suffers. The administration, instructors, and fellow students are also affected.


The college will have a new student withdrawal policy starting in the Fall 2008 semester. The last date that students can withdraw from a class will change from the 75 percent point in the course to the 35 percent point in the course.


Communication department studies withdrawals

Manning said that the communication department’s faculty contacted the research department last summer because of faculty concerns about the withdrawal rates in communication classes.


 “We may think that we know the causes of student withdrawal, but no one really knows unless we ask the students,” she said.


Reasons for withdrawal: An exploration

Students give many reasons for withdrawing from a class. “I get a range of responses. Many students simply have too much on their plates. Something has to give, and it turns out to be a class or two,” said Cathey Ross, communication instructor.


“I've had some students who have been honest. They say that they just get behind and decide to withdraw and take the class another semester. It's almost a way of life,” Ross said.


Anne McIntosh, communication instructor, said some students think that an online class is an easier, watered-down version of a traditional face-to-face class. This is not true, she explained. “Some students are not self-motivated enough to log in and do the work that is required to complete the course.”


“Another factor, too, could be that CPCC has an open-door admission policy meaning that we accept any student,” said McIntosh. “Students who cannot answer, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’, may have a very difficult time finding that commitment level needed to complete courses.” 


In addition to those internal issues, McIntosh explains there are also external factors which seem to receive much attention. Some students withdraw from classes due to factors such as the lack of transportation, lack of dependable and affordable child-care.

Some students withdraw from class due to the break-up of a romantic relationship through divorce or separation. Some students withdraw from class due to family obligations such as caring for an aging parent.


McIntosh, who has more than 20 years of college teaching experience, said that withdrawals have both a positive and negative effect on the classroom environment.


“The positive results are that the instructor has more one-on-one time with the remaining students,” she said. “The negative aspects are-- where did all of my classmates go? Why am I still here? Did I make a good decision to stay in this course?”


“Many classes are built around group assignments. When those assignments are made early in the semester and then students withdraw, the groups' balance is impacted, said Ross. “It's impossible to go back and "fix" those groups.” 


When a student withdraws from a class, it impacts the other students. “I've had classes get so small in some semesters that a good group discussion is almost impossible,” Ross said. On the other hand, one or two withdrawals may not have a big impact.


The communication department gathers information on withdrawals


In the anonymous Communication Questionnaire Spring 2008, students who are currently enrolled in a communication class are asked if they have ever withdrawn from a class. If the response is yes, the student is asked to rank the importance of nine contributing factors. Some of the possible factors are: the class conflicted with employment or other classes, the class conflicted with issues such as family and transportation.


 “If we find we get good, useful information back, we hope to communicate those findings up the chain,” said McIntosh. “Our department’s faculty members serve on various college committees, and we are able to provide input through these means.”


Historical perspective: a 40% withdrawal rate


Manning identified three reasons for CPCC’s high withdrawal rate. Until 1990, CPCC’s grading system consisted of A, B, C, or W for withdrawal. “Our philosophy was that we wanted our students to be successful,” she said. “We had a culture of withdrawing students, if they were not doing well.”


She said that another major factor for CPCC’s historically high student withdrawal rate was the college’s decision to switch from a quarter system to a semester system after the Summer 1997. Prior to the switch, classes ran for 10 weeks, and afterwards classes were expanded to 16 weeks.


The student withdrawal rate spiked from 20 percent to almost 40 percent during Fall 1997 semester. “A lot of students really had trouble adjusting,” said Manning.


She also said that since the high water mark of almost 40 percent, the withdrawal rate trended lower into the 30-percentile range. It has continued to go down slowly over time to the current 22 percent.


Manning said CPCC has been addressing the issue. “We did a pilot program to try to help students not withdraw, and it was successful.” A plan of action was initiated by faculty volunteers, who worked closely with students, utilizing engagement techniques to create mini-learning communities within the classroom. Blocks were also placed on the students accounts so that they had to contact their instructor in order to withdraw.


The students agreed to contact their group members if the member missed class. “We reduced rates by seven percent in those classes and the other classes that the students were enrolled in,” Manning said.


Manning said that another factor that affects community college students is some of the academically least prepared students in higher education. Some students enroll in classes that they may not be academically prepared for. At CPCC, students are not required to take placement tests unless they want to take English or math.


“Part of our problem is the way we do admissions. If you take a placement test and place into developmental courses, we do not make you take those courses first,” Manning said. Students can enroll in many writing intensive classes such as history and sociology without the prerequisite communication skills.


Manning explained that one other factor is local high school students who wish to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte but do not meet its admission requirements also attend CPCC. Often a well-intentioned relative or a friend tells the student that he or she can come to CPCC and take 12 credit hours of so-called easy classes like music or art appreciation. Then once the student successfully completes those easy classes, he or she transfers to UNCC.


Manning said, “Low and behold, they do not do well when they finally take English and math at UNCC.” There is no easy way to become academically prepared to attend college, she added.  


Manning said that at CPCC no one tells students that they need to commit early to a course.

Unfortunately, students who are not performing well just sort of hang around until they take the mid-term. They are hoping and perhaps praying that that they will pass, and if not, they withdraw, Manning said.


“At UNCC, they will not let you withdraw past 13 class days unless you have a catastrophic event,” she said.


“That is the biggest problem CPCC students have when they transfer,” Manning said. A withdrawal at CPCC turns into D or an F at UNCC. The statistics indicate that CPCC transfer students are less successful than other transfer students at UNCC.  


Conclusion: “It will get bad before it gets better”


Ultimately CPCC is expecting improvement in its student withdrawal rate, Manning said. “The college has been putting forth some retention techniques to keep students in class.”


CPCC has had a liberal withdrawal policy, said Manning. “It sets students up to have a wait-and-see attitude, rather than an ‘I’m going to do it’ attitude from about the second week of class.”


Manning said the college hopes the new withdrawal policy will be the students have to commit early.


“The withdrawal rate will probably get bad before it gets better,” Manning said.    “I imagine what we will see is lots of Ds and Fs in classes. “The grades that were Ws will turn into Ds and Fs.”


The students will be upset, they will complain, and they will adjust after approximately a year under the new policy.


“I think in the long run it will really benefit students,” Manning said. “Because honestly being able to wait 75 percent of the way really doesn’t develop the work ethic; it is not the way of the real world.”