Digital Community Colleges and the Coming of the 'Millenials'

Report of Major Findings From the Center for Digital Education’s 2004 Digital Community Colleges Survey

Investments in digital technologies have helped community colleges across

Americaprepare for the needs and expectations of so-called “millenials,” the name given to the generation of 60 million people born between 1979 and 1994, according to the Center for Digital Education. This conclusion comes from analysis of the findings from the second national Digital Community Colleges Survey, which was conducted in conjunction with the American Association of Community Colleges. The survey, based on responses from self-selected colleges representing 44 states in 2004, covers the availability of online admission; registration; student self-service options, including course management, grade viewing and transcript ordering; technology skills development for faculty; technology support on campus; and distance education offerings that reach well beyond the campus via the Internet. The 2004 results rank colleges in three major categories that reflect the size and geography of the communities served: Large/Urban, Midsized/Suburban and Small/Rural.

As with the inaugural Digital Community Colleges Survey in 2002, this year’s results illustrate compression among leading colleges as reflected in a series of ties among the “top 10” colleges in each category. Interestingly, Florida Community College successfully defended its 2002 title with a first-place finish again this year against a new group of contenders. The changeover among other players illustrates a dynamic environment on campuses as colleges work to align themselves with a demographic shift, as well as the rise of the majority of citizens using digital technology to seek information and services.

Millenials at the Vanguard of a Digital Majority

By way of context, separate public polls indicate that roughly three quarters (72%, according to Ipsos-Reid) of all U.S. households have Internet access, while a third (35%, according to JupiterResearch) have broadband access at home. Nearly three-quarters (73%, according to Brainchild) of teenagers report using the Internet regularly, while another estimate from AOL Direct Marketing Services shows that teens spend over 12 hours a week online and are more likely to know their friends’ IM addresses than their phone numbers.

“Millenials … live in a world jam-packed with information and entertainment,” reports Stephen Baker in the July 12, 2004 issue of BusinessWeek. “They practically grew up with the Internet, so they’re far more likely to regard information as something they can control. This thinking extends from one device to the next.”

These Internet natives and their expectations for control and self-services are reshaping campuses as colleges compete for attention of millenials in a bid to convert “gamers” and “surfers” into students.

“The major findings of the 2004 Digital Community Colleges Survey provides a profile of a changing landscape where much has been done, and where more remains to be done,” says Marina Leight, director for the Center for Digital Education.

Admissions and Registration Online

Roughly two-thirds (68%) of responding colleges have automated all or most of their intake processes for prospective students, while 39% of colleges reported that students are able to apply for admission online, including the ability to access, complete and submit admission forms and payments electronically. This is the same level as in 2002, with one notable change this year being that almost a third (29%) of other colleges now offer all but the payment option online for admissions.

Once admitted, students at two-thirds (66%) of colleges are able to register and pay for classes online, with another 24% provided self-serve registration without payment. The spread between online payment options for registration (66%) and admissions (39%) may reflect the types, volume and value of transactions that are viable under the fees charged by credit card companies and those which remain prohibitive. The level of acceptance by colleges suggests that, as with other forms of commerce, online credit card transactions are routine and trusted when the business case pencils out.

Student Self-Service Online

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of responding colleges have created self-service options for students to view their current class schedules, view open and cancelled classes, and add or drop classes online. The same self-service systems support secure student access to view and print their grades, including those from the current term. It follows then that college faculty at these colleges would have access to these same systems. Indeed, three-quarters (76%) of colleges provide authorized faculty with secure access to student academic records online.

Some 43% of the colleges reported that they provide students with secure online access to their transcripts, allowing them to access their transcripts, print an unofficial copy and order an official copy. This represents a 13% increase over 2002, when only 30% had worked through the complex and sensitive issues related to making transcripts available online.

Altogether, 81% of responding colleges reported providing online access to their library card catalogs, journal listings (including full-text retrieval for at least a portion of those holdings), as well as capacity to initiate interlibrary loans and other resources to expand the number and range of publications and periodicals. But only half (53%) of respondents indicated that students can access a searchable database to find and order required books and materials for their courses. This is because borrowing books is much easier online than buying them.

Student Full Service Online

The maturity of student self-service contrasts with the modest adoption rates of expanded or full services for students online in participating colleges. E-mail is used by colleges to respond to inquiries from students needing academic advising (38%), tutoring (22%) and career guidance (46%). The provision of live, real-time online interactions between staff and students is actually higher than e-mail for tutoring (30%), but significantly less for academic advising (16%) and career guidance (8%).

Distance Education via the Internet

The Digital Community Colleges’ results demonstrate an even sharper contrast between the takeup rates for distance education delivered synchronously and asynchronously. Synchronous delivery is done in real time and simultaneous with live instruction. In contrast, asynchronous delivery is made available at a time of the students choosing, with no live interaction. Asynchronous is also less expensive for the college to produce and is infinitely reusable. The cost and convenience factors inherent in asynchronous delivery are seen in the adoption rates by responding colleges — with more than 70% reporting that they had made half of their online distance education courses available asynchronously, but only 12% having done the same with live, real-time instruction.

Technology Support for Faculty and Students

Even with a majority of distance education courses now available online, the reported level of technology-skills development provided for full-time faculty has enjoyed only a modest bump to 56%, up from 52% in the previous survey. And according to the 2004 survey, part-time faculty enjoy training and support at roughly the same level (54%).

Perhaps the most striking development on campuses is the level of college-provided support for student-owned technology, most commonly a laptop computer. Even with the practice of encouraging and sometimes requiring students to have their own laptop, over half the responding colleges reported that they were providing “help desk support” to one degree or another for student-owned machines. While moving away from the burden of the hardware and software costs of student computing, the majority of colleges have accepted the role of supporting students and their computers while they are on campus and connected to college networks. Some related key findings:

·        15% of colleges provide support for student-owned equipment through voice mail, e-mail and on the Web;

·        17% of colleges provide a live, staffed help desk for student-owned equipment at no charge; and

·        20% of colleges provide a live, staffed help desk for student-owned equipment to help students configure their equipment to the campus network and help with wireless access ports.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

Finally, the results of the 2004 Digital Community Colleges Survey suggest a positive correlation between making progress in meeting the needs and expectations of students and faculty on one hand, and the existence of a strategic plan on the other. In only one category did responses exceed 80%, with the high watermark in the most advanced categories clustering in the mid-70% range. Consider that 82% of all responding colleges reported having a strategic plan. Notably, 58% of colleges reported having both a strategic plan and a supporting source of funds in place, including all but one of the top 30 finishers.

About the Center for Digital Education

The Digital Community Colleges survey reflects the common vision of the Center for Digital Education, a national research and advisory institute for industry and education leaders, and the American Association of Community Colleges, a national association representing the nation’s 1,151 accredited community, junior and technical colleges, to improve the learning experience by improving the way technology is used in education. For more information on the Center for Digital Education, visit


Report and Analysis: Paul W. Taylor , Ph.D., Chief Strategy Officer

Survey and Award Programs Manager: Janet Grenslitt

Director: Marina Leight

Executive Director: Cathilea Robinett

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.