March 24, 2021

Transforming the Community College Student Co-curricular Experience

Struggling with high levels of attrition and low degree or certificate completion rates, many community colleges have adopted curricular strategies such as dual enrollment, re-examination of placement testing and gateway courses, and Guided Pathways to improve student outcomes. Even though most colleges espouse a holistic view of educating the “whole student,” most community colleges have not devoted the same transformative thinking regarding programs, services, support and engagement outside the classroom. Compared with students at four-year campuses, community college students have lower participation, with as many as 80% never attending a club or organization1. Many community college co-curricular offerings mirror those of four-year campuses and aim to serve “traditional” students enrolled full-time, under the age of 25, living in residence, not employed and without children. Concerned with balancing work and family obligations, community college students are often unable, choose not to or don’t see the value of devoting time to campus activities outside the classroom. And the type of engagement and social support being offered may not be of value to them nor be offered when they can participate.

Co-curricular Engagement Matters

Involvement outside the classroom plays a key role in student retention, persistence, and graduation. Such experiences include participation in student clubs and organizations, intramural and intercollegiate athletics, student government, leadership programs, community service programs, theatre and the arts, and much more. Through their involvement, students foster awareness and develop competencies important for college and beyond, including time management, problem-solving, leadership, collaboration, decision-making and intercultural competence – and they develop them at higher rates than those who are not involved. They also learn more about campus resources, develop an enhanced understanding of others, make gains in critical thinking, improve their resilience, and connect with mentors. In addition, involvement in formal, college-sponsored, co-curricular programs at the community college not only positively correlates to their development (greater self-confidence, higher ability to manage emotions), but it contributes to students’ academic success and positively influences student satisfaction with the overall college experience2.

Because co-curricular experiences are so valuable to student success, community colleges need to do a better job of considering the lived reality of the students the college serves. Too often, colleges fall into the trap of blaming students for their lack of involvement rather than focusing on what institutions can do to create environments that meet students where they are and eliminate systemic barriers that hinder their involvement. This mindset shift can help community colleges transform their view of co-curricular offerings and design them to meet diverse students personal and professional needs.

Transformative Considerations

What co-curricular programs and events community colleges offer, when they offer them, and the ease with which students can find out about ways to get involved outside the classroom sends a signal to students about how much they matter. When re-thinking the role of co-curricular offerings to support student success, reflect on how many aspects of the co-curriculum are things “we have always done this way,” how many are designed the way they are for the convenience of staff or due to limited resources, and how many are truly designed with student needs at the center. Consider these ideas to jumpstart your transformation. 

  1. Design activities and services to meet the needs of students. Disaggregate your student co-curricular student data to determine which students are attending programs and events and who is missing. Are programs offered at times convenient for a variety of students? Are the types of clubs, organizations and events suited to the current student population? Programs that involve family, relate to academic progress or career interests, benefit the community, or are offered on weekends may be more effective. For example, the Dental Hygienists Club may offer free dental screenings for the community on weekends, with students taking turns providing childcare. Ask students what they need and listen to their ideas and suggestions.
  2. Create co-curricular experiences where students can integrate their academic, personal and career development. Help students make the connection between their coursework and the co-curriculum and create intentional intersections between class offerings and events, community service and volunteering, and co-curricular programs. Create institutional learning goals that allow students to select from various ways to demonstrate their learning and competencies – in the classroom, through co-curricular activities, at internships, through their employment, and in service to their community.
  3. Empower students to foster vibrant peer-to-peer relationships. Help students find one another through mentoring programs, interest groups, and online meetups. Consider whether your current “registered student organization” policies and procedures are unnecessarily bureaucratic and create barriers to involvement. Recognize that students come to college with skills and abilities they want to share and develop leadership opportunities for them to contribute authentically.
  4. Support students in meaning-making that show the value of co-curricular involvement. Develop intentional programming that guides students through meaningful co-curricular learning experiences and showcases their involvement and leadership. Design a co-curricular transcript that helps students track and reflect on their learning outside the classroom. Assist students with portable micro-credentials that help them articulate their co-curricular skills and competencies to faculty and employers.
  5. Collaborate campus-wide. Rather than viewing “student activities” as the sole purview of the student services staff, prioritize co-curricular engagement as a vital institutional success goal as valuable as instruction. Conduct an audit of all programs, events and activities outside the classroom and determine where there are synergies, gaps, and redundancies. Clearly articulate the skills and abilities gained through involvement, so everyone has a shared understanding of the value. Set strategic campus priorities and facilitate ways for departments to share resources and develop, execute, staff, and advertise co-curricular opportunities for students. Conduct meaningful assessment to find out what’s working and what needs improvement. Finally, develop ways for faculty to encourage co-curricular involvement, assist in providing opportunities for such involvement, and include participation in co-curricular programs as part of their courses.


  1. Chang, June., “Student Involvement in the Community College: A Look at the Diversity and Value of Student Activities and Programs: (2002).  
  2. Elliott, Jacquelyn R., "The Relationship of Involvement in Co-Curricular Programs on Community College Student Success and Development" (2009). Public Access Theses and Dissertations from the College of Education and Human Sciences. 44.

Headshot of Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Managing Director of Learning and Impact
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

Dr. Anne E. Lundquist (she/her/hers), Managing Director of Learning and Impact for The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, is a white, cisgender, third-generation educated researcher, poet, yogi, and social justice advocate who draws on her 30-year career in higher education to help campuses use data for change. Previously, Anne served as Assistant Vice President, Campus Strategy for Anthology, Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Division of Student Affairs at Western Michigan University as well as senior student affairs officer at four liberal arts colleges. She has taught diverse subject matter, including educational leadership, institutional effectiveness, higher education law, writing, and literature. Anne’s areas of scholarship and interest include strategic planning, enterprise risk management, student success, and equity-minded assessment. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a doctorate in Educational Leadership, Higher Education, from Western Michigan University. She earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and English from Albion College.