According to educational experts, having incoming students begin college on the right foot is key to helping them be successful. Which is why, starting with this fall’s incoming students, Central Oregon Community College is completely revamping its orientation and advising programs.

COCC is using part of a $2.25 million federal grant to help incoming students register for classes earlier and become more mentally prepared for college with a new program called First Year Experience. Its first stage, an online, interactive orientation for current high school seniors and transfer students, is expected to begin next week. Further sections of the orientation will take place throughout the summer and early fall.

Alicia Moore, COCC’s dean of student and enrollment services, said having students begin the registration and welcoming process earlier will improve their academic performance and reduce dropout rates.

These changes are possible because of a Title III grant, which goes to higher-­education institutions with high rates of low-income students. COCC received the money in September 2016 from the U.S. Department of Education. Funding from this grant has also been used to help students pass required math and writing classes more quickly.

Previously, incoming students typically began their COCC experience by visiting the campus to start advising and orientation in June or July.

But students entering COCC in fall 2019 will be the first to go through Bobcat Welcome — an online, interactive orientation to the college — likely starting around April 15, Moore said.

“It touches on, at a very high level, all the support services and how students can get engaged,” she said. “The intent is to send the message, ‘You belong here, we believe in you, and we know you can be successful’ … which really helps to make a difference in the mindset of our students.”

Moore said that it’s crucial to immediately emphasize how COCC will closely guide and support incoming students through their college experience. This is particularly key for those who are first in their family to attend college.

“I’ve talked to many students who say, ‘I don’t know if I can make it through college,’” she said. “We wanted to counter that right away.”

After Bobcat Welcome, students will go through Bobcat Advising starting on May 13, which, besides re-emphasizing the “you belong” message, doesn’t have many changes, Moore said. But there’s one major exception — a new class planning system. The current system COCC uses, GradTracks, only gives students a checklist of classes they need to pass to earn their degree. The new system being added this summer, DegreeWorks Planner, is a more interactive planning system that guides students through the exact order of classes required and will even warn students if they attempt to sign up for a course that won’t lead toward the degree they desire.

Another major change starting this fall is the deadline for student registration. According to Moore, students who registered before or on Sept. 1 had a higher GPA and course completion rate in their first term compared to those who registered after that date. Last fall, students could apply up until the Wednesday before classes began and register for classes and go through advising until the Friday before classes began.

Because COCC found that students who applied and registered for classes earlier were more successful, the college will have a hard application deadline of two Mondays before the start of the fall term — because classes start on Sept. 20 in 2019, that deadline will be Sept. 9 — and students must register for classes two Fridays before the term’s start, or by Sept. 13 this year. Students must meet both deadlines, otherwise they are placed on the “alternative track.” According to Moore, students placed in that group must apply and register by the Thursday before the term — Sept. 19 in 2019 — and they will have to select from a smaller list of courses, including a college success course.

About $89,000 of the funding went to John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, a pair of former University of South Carolina professors who founded the educational nonprofit The Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. Gardner and Barefoot have studied and taught on the first-year college experience since 1972 and 1988, respectively, and help higher-­education institutions design their own plans for easing in new students.

The married couple visited COCC in 2017 to help design a plan to remodel how incoming students are introduced to the college and have been in contact since.

Positive messaging is very important for incoming students, Gardner said.

“The main thing is to be optimistic,” he said.

Gardner said it “took a lot of courage” for COCC to not allow students to register for classes at the last minute, as many colleges would simply take those students’ money despite knowing the late start would negatively affect the students’ experience.

“Access isn’t enough,” he said. “If you’re giving them access to something they’re not going to be successful in, what’s the point?”

Moore said she appreciated having Barefoot and Gardner’s outside perspective while designing the First Year Experience program, and the advising duo said they were proud of the plan COCC created.

“A lot of times, we work with people and give them a lot of advice, and they don’t follow through,” Gardner said. “(COCC) has done it beautifully.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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