Students stepping onto Century College's campus are greeted by a sign: "Welcome to the 2012-2013 academic year!" Below the message is a man in a graduation cap.

From the start, community colleges are emphasizing the end, trying to improve stubborn transfer and graduation rates as national pressure grows.

The challenge is sizable: Fewer than half of students who enter a community college earn a degree or transfer to a four-year school, or they are still enrolled six years later, according to a recent report by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Colleges now begin their efforts the moment students arrive. In some cases, even earlier. Alexandria Technical and Community College interviews students about their goals before they enroll. Inver Hills Community College groups first-year students into "learning communities." Itasca Community College takes the full first day to orient students, inviting them to "Let's Chat" sessions and a picnic.

This fall, Century College in White Bear Lake is requiring students who tested into developmental reading -- all 1,450 of them -- to take a three-credit course called "New Student Seminar."

"For a long time, community colleges' mission was opening up access," said Melinda Mechur Karp, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. But in recent years, "there's increasing recognition that isn't enough. It's not enough to say, 'Come on in,' if we can't get you through."

Last Tuesday was the first day of college for most of Cathy Crea's "New Student" class at Century. They spent the first half hour learning about what they have in common -- and what makes them different. "I'm a carnie at the State Fair," one woman said. "I own my own business," said another. Later: "I have a kid."

"Stand up if you have a kid," Crea said. The four standing shared ages, names.

The college hopes that students will find within these small classes a sense of community and responsibility to one another, as well as study skills and career planning.

Crea, who has taught the "New Student" course since it began as a pilot program, believes it "definitely" makes a difference, especially for students who are the first in their families to go to college.

"Many times, these students' lives have kind of conspired against them," Crea said. "They've had a lack of opportunity because of poverty, institutional racism, language barriers.

"I've seen this class help level out the playing field so that they can turn their lives around and be successful."

Getting students to stay

Reports reveal a relationship between taking such courses and staying in school, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

"If someone were to say, what's the one thing that works, student success courses would be toward the top of my list," Mechur Karp said. Meanwhile, studies show that many of community colleges' other efforts "have had less impact than we had hoped."

Mechur Karp said that when done right, the courses "essentially serve as a prolonged group advising period," filling in for an advising staff that, at many colleges, "is understaffed, under-resourced and overburdened."

According to the American Association of Community Colleges report, released in April, "The community college landscape is littered with lost credits that do not add up to student success."

In Minnesota, the state's community colleges' average three-year graduation rate was 26.3 percent in 2010 -- down slightly from prior years. The percentage of students who transferred to four-year schools within three years looks better: It rose from 22 percent in 2006 to 26 percent in 2010, according to a January report by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Minnesota ranked among the top 10 states in 2010 with its combined graduation and transfer rate of 53.4 percent, a number that includes for-profit two-year schools.

Outside life pushes dropouts

To understand its challenge, Century asked instructors to track why students were dropping out. "When we tallied it up, we found that most of them were dropping out because of cars breaking down, daycare going south, jobs requiring more hours," said Kathy Matel, student success coordinator. "Nonacademic reasons."

The "New Student" seminar aims to give students the tools to deal with those challenges. And the attitude.

"Successful students accept personal responsibility," the course materials say, while "struggling students see themselves as victims." In one exercise, Crea has students write down one thing they're happy about and another they're sad or disappointed about. She has them read those aloud, adding on "and I am responsible."

"I tell them they have to say it, whether it feels true or not," Crea said. "What piece of this can I own?"

Students in the seminar give Century much higher marks in the national Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

When asked, about 40 percent of U.S. students said their college gave "very little" emphasis to "helping you cope with your non-academic responsibilities," including work and family, according to the survey.

At Century, the overall numbers weren't much better: About 35.9 percent said "very little." But answers from students in the seminar differed: Only 10.4 percent said "very little," while 30 percent said "some," and 37.2 percent said "quite a bit."

It's a similar story with career planning. About 29.4 percent of Century students generally said they "never" talked about career plans with an instructor or adviser. "This shocked me the first time I saw it -- 30 percent!" Matel said. But among students enrolled in the "New Student" seminar, just 8 percent said "never." Instead, 47.4 percent said "sometimes."

A study in perseverance

Eight years ago, Deidre Boucher started college, failed her first semester and dropped out. "I was a single mom," she explained. "I was young. I wasn't ready."

Then, after losing her job two years ago, Boucher enrolled at Century College. She was mad at herself for testing into developmental reading and angry that she would have to take the "New Student" seminar. "I didn't want anything to do with it," she said.

The first day in class changed her mind. Two years later, at age 33, she is still working toward an associate's degree. She now tutors for the class she credits with teaching her "how to dream big, how to have good goals."

But she still struggles. Boucher and her two children are homeless and, as of last week, car-less. "The police took it away, because I don't have insurance. I can't afford it," she said. "That's my life."

In tough moments like this one, "when all hope's gone," Boucher returns to the very first journal entry she wrote for Crea's class, she said.

"I remember what I was teaching myself and telling myself."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168