Sierra College Leads the Way in Improving Student Success

From helping students offset the cost of college, to making it easier for students to get and stay on track with their higher education goals, Sierra College has been leading the way, providing the resources and support students need to succeed. As the Dean of Enrollment Services, Beth Ervin oversees Admissions and Records, Financial Aid, and Assessment. She has been an integral part of these recent improvements. “The foundation of my work is developing and implementing strategies to help students get into college and succeed. College is an opportunity available to everyone, and I’m really passionate about that part of the work,” stated Ervin.

Paying for College Does Not Have to be a Burden

One of the biggest challenges of going to college has been the cost. While California community college students pay the lowest tuition in the state ($46/unit), cost can still be an obstacle for many students. Today, eligible students enrolled in at least 12 units may have their enrollment fees waived thanks to the state-funded California College Promise (formerly known as the Board of Governors or BOG waiver). Sierra refers to this program as First Year Free.

Students who submit a FAFSA or CADAA may also qualify for a variety of grants which can be used for living expenses, books, and supplies. Some grants even award more money to students who complete more units. The Sierra College Foundation also provides numerous student scholarships, book vouchers, and emergency funds.

Additionally, Sierra has created the Sierra Promise, which is a partnership with the local high schools in the district to ease students’ transition to college. Students who commit to being a Promise Scholar receive many benefits including access to support and resources like financial assistance.

“We tell our students to maximize their free tuition and start in the summer when they are more likely to be successful,” said Ervin. “We encourage them to attend full-time and complete their first 30 units for free at Sierra.” Students have been taking Ervin’s advice. According to the initial data, Sierra Promise students have a persistence rate that is over ten percent higher than the district average. Ervin related, “To see these students not only persisting, but persisting with a full-time class load is exciting. They understand it is more efficient to be full-time and get to their goal faster, whether their goal is employment or getting a bachelor’s degree.”

Guided Pathways: Clarifying and Easing the Way to Completion 

In 2016, as part of the college’s re-engineering efforts, Sierra College faculty and counselors engaged in a comprehensive review of the sequencing of courses required to complete all of the college’s 174 degrees and certificates. As a result, each program’s webpage now displays a map for students, clearly outlining what is needed to earn each degree or certificate. This is just one part of the college’s Guided Pathways efforts.

Over the last two years, Sierra has also improved the application and registration process and made it simpler for students to identify their educational goals with the creation of Interest Areas, which bundles the 174 degrees and certificates in groups.

“Before guided pathways, students could be overwhelmed or confused by lists of majors,” Ervin explained. “For example, traditional careers don’t always have a major. If a student wanted to be a teacher, doctor, or lawyer, there wasn’t a specific major for those fields.” It is also helpful for students interested in programs such as Nursing, which has very rigorous admission requirements. Nursing is included in the Public Safety, Health and Wellness Interest Area along with Administrative of Justice, Allied Health, Fire Technology, Health Education, Health Sciences, Kinesiology, and Nutrition and Food Science. Counselors and Support Team Specialists will be able to provide students with information about alternatives within each Interest Area, making it easier for students to explore a related field.

“We see this as an opportunity to talk to students about their goals,” Ervin said. “We can now help students see the connection between education and the life they want to build.”

Improvements to English and Math Placement

In the past, in order to enroll in their first college-level math or English course, students were required to take an assessment test. If they performed poorly on the assessment test, students were placed in a non-credit, non-transferable remedial course. However, beginning in 2014, Sierra allowed placement in math and English to be contingent on a variety of indicators or multiple measures. Now, the online Math and English Placement Tool walks students through a series of questions, taking into consideration the student’s Early Assessment Test result, highest level of English completed, and overall high school GPA. 

“It eliminated a barrier for students,” Ervin related. “We know when students enter into courses at college level, they are much more likely to be successful. Plus, they won’t have to use their financial aid, time, and effort for non-transferable classes.”

Sierra’s use of multiple measures was a precursor to State Assembly Bill 705 – Student Success Act 2012: Assessment, which was passed in 2017 and went into effect last year. The bill requires all California community colleges to use multiple measures in the placement of students into English and math courses. Additionally, it requires that colleges maximize the probability that a student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and math within a one year timeframe.

“AB 705 created opportunities for faculty to create really nice support systems for students,” Ervin noted. “We have stepped up our tutoring efforts by embedding tutors in the classroom with students, and we have developed side-car non-credit support classes.” Those non-credit courses are at no extra cost and will help students succeed in a class that might have been just out of their reach. Plus, the courses are designed so students can use them as needed. “If a student is struggling with grammar,” Ervin explained, “They can get extra help and practice in the non-credit course. They can pop in and out of those courses as needed, or as the professor recommends.”

Ervin is excited about the change. “It’s giving students the opportunity to jump-start their higher ed journey in a positive way.”

Changing Students’ Lives with New Opportunities at Sierra College

“Out of all the work I have done, this work is incredibly meaningful to me because it is about students being able to grasp new opportunities,” Ervin shared. She is quick to share the credit though, noting the dedicated staff and faculty assisting students every day. “I’m very grateful that Sierra values innovation, and that students are at the center of everything we do.”