At South Plains College, a rural community college of 10,000 in West Texas, where I am an academic advisor,[i] I have some big goals for my students. But not just because I think it’s a good idea to help them aim high: for my students, it can make the difference between a life in or out of poverty. It can make the difference between barely surviving and thriving.
So what do we talk about, when we talk about persistence, retention, and completion at a community college?
I talk to my students about how to negotiate with their shift supervisor at work so they can complete their science assignments and avoid academic probation. I talk to my students about where to find the campus shuttle when their tire blows out and they can’t afford to fix it until next week. I talk to my students who are pre-engineering but have tested into the lowest level of remedial arithmetic. I buy my students breakfast when the gang they’re trying to leave jumps them for their money at the bus stop on the way to school.
I talk to my students a lot about hope.
Hope can feel pretty audacious when you’ve grown up in or near poverty in a rural area.
Hope can feel pretty audacious when you’ve been shuffled into lower performing schools or classrooms your entire life.
Hope can feel pretty audacious when you are the first person in your family to go to college.
Hope can feel pretty audacious when the completion rate at community colleges in Texas is only 15%, even when we look at a four-year timeline for what is intended to be a two-year degree.[ii]
My students need that audacity. In the Advising Center where I work, we’ve been talking a lot about our Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG. A BHAG is a concept borrowed from business, and from the No Excuses University network, which was founded on the idea that every student has the right to be educated in a way that prepares them for higher education.
(Do you know how many schools are actually doing that? Nationally, over 60% of freshmen need remediation in either reading, writing, or math.[iii] We’re not just talking about students who did not achieve high grades in high school, though. As The Atlantic wrote about this February, in a survey of 70,000 community college students, 40% who earned A averages in high school still needed a developmental course.[iv])
So what is our Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Anyone can set a big goal, or write a vision statement, but this is something more: it’s both hairy and audacious. It scares you a lot. You can instantly come up with at least a dozen reasons why it can fail, why it’s unreasonable, why it’s not realistic.
My BHAG is to help every student who walks in my door (and many more who I’ll only ever meet over email) to develop their own big, hairy, audacious goal at South Plains College.
My students come from a demographic that is diverse, underprivileged, and with a higher number of first-generation college students than the average university. Many do not know that an associate’s degree can lead to a bachelor’s degree, and from there to a good career.
I want my students to look beyond “what do I need to graduate” to “what do I need to pursue my life’s goals?” I want them to develop a sense of purpose that animates their everyday choices. Do they pick up an extra shift at Walmart or do they study for that Biology quiz? What helps them choose between hanging out with friends and visiting a tutor?
South Plains College’s motto is Dreams Precede Realities. That is exactly what we do in community college advising: we cultivate those dreams, and we push them to think bigger, dream bigger. And then, most critically, we give them the tools, resources, and encouragement they need to get there.
Anyone can dream big. My big hairy audacious goal is that my students will get there.
[i] Alternative position titles include: Chief Encourager, Career Guide, Personal Financial Planner, Life Coach, Co-Philosopher, Academic Pyrotechnician, Cheerleader for the Liberal Arts, Explorer of Unknown Territories, and Your Extra Mom.
This post is part of our #comm_college series, which aims to explore experiences developing community college policies and processes that impact the recruitment, retention, and completion of community college students. What human interest stories do you have of community college student resilience, persistence, and success? What about a stories of transition, challenge, or transformation? A variety of SA pros working in student affairs at a community college will share their insights. For more information, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dr. Brian Bourke on Reframing “Nontraditional” Students