In addition to the many structural barriers that impede the success of learners from low-income backgrounds, there are also cultural barriers — those that make learners feel isolated and overwhelmed and like they don't belong on campus or in college. Despite mounting evidence pointing to the crucial role nonacademic staff, also known as classified staff, play in removing these barriers, large-scale efforts to improve retention at community colleges and elsewhere typically focus little direct attention on interpersonal interactions between students and staff. That’s where Caring Campus comes in. Developed and administered by the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC) with support from Ascendium, the program engages faculty and nonacademic staff to improve interactions with students and build a culture of belonging. So far, reports from participating institutions are positive.
One advantage of the Caring Campus project is that it calls attention to the need for improvements in the interpersonal spaces not often governed by institutional policy and practice. Institutions can apply the tenets of Caring Campus, no matter the status of their major reforms, to deepen their awareness of how new practices and policies can impact students' sense of belonging. It also creates reasonable expectations for nonacademic staff — that is, personnel in student services divisions like financial aid, enrollment management, advising, counseling and the registrar — who often feel overtaxed to begin with. Directives for staff engaged in Caring Campus are straightforward and easy to implement. They range from the “10-foot rule” (approaching students in a friendly manner whenever one is within 10 feet and appears to need assistance) to learning about other departments so they know exactly where to send a student who appears to be struggling.
An Ascendium-funded study by the Community College Resource Center (CCRC) of 20 campuses engaged in the initiative found that Caring Campus can increase the sense of community and connectedness among college staff because it “encourages everyone to work together instead of in their own silos.” This, in turn, can have a positive impact on students. One Caring Campus liaison stated that, because her college’s team meets regularly, they frequently come up with ways to improve college policies and procedures.
Hope Ell and Trisha Albertsen, both nonacademic staff who helped institute Caring Campus at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, echo the sentiments of many staff members interviewed by CCRC. “The work that comes from Caring Campus is work that many classified professionals already do on some level,” the pair say. “Caring Campus helps to formalize ways to support students, which hopefully makes some of the work easier. More importantly, it helps classified professionals feel more connected to the students they serve and to the campus overall. It leads to a sense of belonging.”
Caring Campus is part of a larger trend toward more holistic approaches to removing barriers and supporting postsecondary students. The initiative and others like it are based on decades of research documenting that students who feel connected to their college are more likely to succeed in their courses, persist from semester to semester and achieve their academic goals. Institutions that employ these approaches tend to yield strong results.
To learn more about Caring Campus, visit the IEBC website.