CATALYST v24n2 - A Needs Assessment for the Community Services and Continuing Education Program at an Illinois Community College

Volume XXIV, Number 2
Spring 1994

A Needs Assessment
for the Community Services and Continuing Education Program
at an Illinois Community College

Philip R. Parks, M.S.Ed.
Former Intern, Community Services, Rend Lake College
Area Manager, Wal-Mart, Greencastle, Indiana

Marybelle C. Keim, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Educational Administration & Higher Education
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Community colleges have conducted numerous needs assessments for marketing purposes, for planning purposes, and for assessing attitudes and interests (Cross, 1983). Community awareness studies were done by Anderson (1977) at Allegany Community College (MD), by Morgan and Feldman (1977) at the San Diego Community College District (CA), and by Lau (1982) at the Pasadena Area Community College District (CA). Categorized as community interest studies were those by Moore (1975) at Chemeketa Community College (OR), Sunal (1979) at Essex Community College (MD), Strenthening Developing Institutions Program (1981) at Reading Area Community College (PA), Rosberg (1981) at Kirkwood Community College (IA), Chestnut (1982) at Schenectady County Community College (NY), Dennis-Rounds (1983) at Cerritos College (CA), and Dennis-Rounds and Mayer (1987) also at Cerritos College. Program planning studies were carried out by Needham (1982) at Patrick Henry Community College (VA), by Williams, Caveny and Murray (1983) at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, and by Shaffer (1990) at Cuesta College (CA).

Little research, however, has been published about needs assessments for community services and continuing education programs. Nickens (1977) sought to determine the characteristics of more than 4,600 students enrolled in community services courses at seven Florida Community Colleges. He found that nearly 60% of the students were female, 87% were Caucasian, and the median age was between 25 and 34 years of age. Another study was conducted at Mt. San Antonio College (CA) to determine the overall effectiveness of the community services program (Lohr, 1987). Three hundred seven questionnaires were administered in community services classes over a two-month period. Nearly all the respondents rated the classes as good or excellent; five people gave the classes a fair rating, and no one rated them poor. Eighty percent believed that the publicity given to community services classes was good or excellent, but only 56% rated the local newspaper coverage as good or excellent. Nearly 85% thought that receiving a community services schedule was good or excellent. Almost 95% speculated that the prospect was good or excellent that they might participate in community services classes at a later date.

Rend Lake College
This study was conducted as part of a plan to improve the overall effectiveness of the Community Services Department of Rend Lake College, a rural community college located in Ina, Illinois. During the fiscal year 1992 the college served nearly 9,000 credit students (unduplicated headcount). Slightly more than 2,600 community education (COMED) students were enrolled in 229 COMED classes. The overall cancellation rate of COMED classes at Rend Lake College was of concern, because nearly 40% had to be canceled due to low enrollments. The cancellation rate in the city of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, was 15%, but only 45 classes were offered. Forty-five classes for nearly 17,000 residents was thought to be a very low figure, when other smaller communities in the Rend Lake District offered nearly as many COMED classes.

The purposes of the study were to determine the extent to which the residents of Mt. Vernon knew about COMED classes, to ascertain the best ways of communicating with the residents, and to learn the residents' scheduling needs.

All the previously cited researchers used questionnaires or telephone interviews to gather their data; the numbers of questionnaires ranged from 307 (Lohr, 1987) to 6,524 (Williams, Caveny & Murray, 1983) and the numbers of telephone interviews ranged from 295 (Needham, 1982) to 1,322 (Moore, 1975). Dennis-Rounds and Mayer (1987) selected a pool of 7,000 telephone numbers for their research, but obtained only 1,050 usable interviews (15%).

A telephone interview was used to gather the data for the study. The interview schedule, comprised of 14 questions (Table 1), was developed specifically for this study and was based on the review of literature and the input of experts in the field. The telephone script was thoroughly pilot tested and was revised several times based on the pilot interviews. The first author and four associates, who were trained by him, spent six weeks during August and September of 1993 conducting the telephone interviews; calls were made between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with each interview lasting about five minutes.

A random sample of 941 listed telephone numbers within the city limits of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, was selected for the study. From these telephone numbers, 401 (43%) usable interviews were obtained, representing 7% of the households in the community; 2 (< 1%) were unusable; 307 (33%) refused to be interviewed; 144 (15%) were unable to be contacted after several attempts; 75 (8%) telephone numbers were not in service; and 12 (1%) were businesses. Interviews were conducted only with individuals who were 17 or older.

Profile of Respondents. Of the usable interviews, 279 (70%) were with women and 122 (30%) were with men. Caucasian was given as the ethnic background by 94% of the respondents; African-American by 3%; and "Other" by the remainder (3%).

Awareness. Eighty-one percent were aware that Rend Lake College offered COMED classes. Eighty-two percent of the women and 78% of the men were aware of the classes. The awareness of all age groups (17-22, 23-29, 30-35, 36-45, 46-55, 56-65, 66-75, over 75) was above 70%, except for females over the age of 75 (58%) and males 17-22 (57%). Nearly 82% of Caucasians, 64% of African-Americans, and 67% of "Others" were aware of the classes.

Experience with COMED Classes. Twenty-three percent (N=91) of the respondents had taken a COMED class. Of these, 81% were women and 19% were men. The majority (64%) of women who had taken classes were in their primary working years (23-55). The other women (35%) who had taken a class were over 56. Sixty-five percent of the men who had taken a class were between 30 and 55 and the remainder were in their senior years. Twenty-two percent had completed high school and 77% had some formal education beyond high school. In terms of household incomes, 20% reported less than $20,000; 16% were between $20,001 and $30,000; 43% were between $30,001 and $50,000; and 21% were over $50,001. Caucasians accounted for 97% who had taken COMED classes. Eighty-seven percent would take the COMED class again if they had the opportunity; the other 13% of the respondents, however, were not dissatisfied with their classes--two were currently enrolled, two said they were too old, and the others did not give reasons for not reenrolling.

Typical COMED Student. The typical COMED student was a Caucasian woman, between the ages of 23 and 55. She had some form of formal education beyond high school and had an income between $30,001 and $50,000. She was satisfied with the community education course that she took and would take the class again.

Promotion. Four types of promotion were examined: local radio, local newspaper, cable television, and direct mailings. Sixty-nine percent listened to the local radio stations--69% of the Caucasians and 79% of the African-Americans. Slightly more than 82% regularly read the local newspaper, including 83% of Caucasians and 71% of African-Americans. Cable television was subscribed to by 91% of the respondents--91% of Caucasians, 100% of African-Americans, and 67% of "Others." Eighty-two percent said they they would read a Community Services brochure if it were mailed to their home; one percent indicated they might read such a brochure, and 17% said they would not read the brochure.

Convenient Times for Classes. Evening was perceived by 62% as the most convenient time for classes. Morning was selected by 17% and afternoon was the choice of 14%. Any time was convenient for 7%. For 70% of the 17-22 age group, evening was the first choice. Men who were 23-55 preferred evening classes (84%), as well as 75% of the women in the same age grouping. Fifty-two percent of men over 56 years of age selected evening, followed by 20% who said any time, 16% afternoon, and 12% morning. The preferences of women over 56 were morning (34%), afternoon (30%), evening (26%), and any time (10%).

Convenient Days for Classes. Weekdays were preferred by 70%, followed by Saturdays (18%), and either weekdays or Saturdays (11%). Of the respondents who had a preference for weekdays, 57% did not have a specific day that was the most convenient. Tuesday was the most desirable day for 24%.

Courses Suggested. Ninety-six course suggestions were given by 143 respondents, ranging from Administration to Yoga. Computer and cooking courses were the most commonly requested.

Class Duration. A duration of once a week for two to six weeks was preferred by 62%. Nineteen percent preferred a class that met only once, and an additional 19% did not indicate a preference.

Typical Respondent. The typical respondent in this study was a Caucasian woman who was aware that Rend Lake College offered community education classes. She listened to the local radio, read the newspaper regularly, subscribed to cable television, and would read a community services brochure if it were sent to her home. She thought that a weekday evening would be the most convenient time for her to take a community education course, and she preferred a once-a-week class that met for two to six weeks.

In spite of the popularity of answering machines, it would appear that telephone interviews continue to be a viable research method for conducting needs assessments for community services and continuing education programs. It was possible in this study to reach more than 400 respondents in a relatively short time with relatively little expense. In addition, more than 40% of those who were contacted agreed to be interviewed. Perhaps the midwestern small town nature of the community involved had something to do with the high response rate--it certainly was vastly different from the 15% interview rate in the Cerritos College (CA) urban area (Dennis-Rounds & Mayer, 1987). The interview protocol should be carefully developed before beginning the telephone campaign. It should be emphasized that the interviewers need to be carefully trained for consistency purposes. Appropriate answer sheets for recording answers are another must, and summaries should be carefully and accurately drawn from the data collected.

The respondents from Mt. Vernon, Illinois, were similar in some respects to those in Nickens' (1977) and Lohr's (1987) studies. Nickens concluded that community services courses attracted older Caucasian females from higher income groups; Caucasian females from higher income groups were the predominant COMED students in this study as well. Lohr's participants were very satisfied with their community services classes; the Illinois respondents were also very satisfied with their COMED classes and would take the class again.

Several community services and continuing education programming guidelines can be generated from the findings in this study. It is essential that the directors of such programs realize the characteristics of those enrolled in their classes and to program accordingly for them. Perhaps more importantly, they need to know the kinds of students that have not been reached and to market aggressively for new audiences. For the Mt. Vernon residents who had been enrolled in COMED classes, it was apparent that the classes needed to be appealing to well-educated and affluent Caucasian women between the ages of 23 and 55. For those interviewed, it is pertinent to realize that most knew about COMED classes, regularly read the newspaper, listened to the radio, watched cable TV, and would read a brochure if it was sent to their home. They preferred that classes be offered on a weekday evening and be held once a week for two to six weeks in duration. However, older women (over 75), younger men (17-22), and African-Americans were less likely to know about COMED classes. If community colleges want to reach these people, they will need to program and advertise specifically for these target groups. Classes for older women could be held during the day, since nearly two-thirds preferred morning or afternoon classes. On the other hand, fewer than 30% of older men preferred daytime hours. Younger men and women overwhelmingly preferred evening hours. Programmers will need to keep in mind that all of the African-Americans in this study subscribed to cable television; most listened to the radio regularly, but did not read the newspaper as often; hence, cable TV and radio would be the best media for reaching African-Americans. Colleges should continue to mail brochures/schedules of Community Services and Continuing Education classes directly to all households in their districts, since most respondents indicated they they would read such materials.

It is hopeful that this study will be useful to staff members in the field of community services and continuing education, since there are so few published studies dealing with these activities. Perhaps the interview protocol utilized in this needs assessment could be used as is or modified to fit the purpose of other studies under consideration. The findings, if adapted to specific settings, may have relevance for other community colleges, as well.

Anderson, R. C. (1977). The community survey: An effective tool for administrative planning and decision making. Community/Junior College Quarterly of Research and Practice, 2, 1-9.

Chestnut, E. (1982). Community needs assessment, 1982. Schenectady, NY: Schenectady County Community College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. Ed 241 077)

Cross, K. P. (1983). The state of the art in needs assessment. Community/Junior College Quarterly of Research and Practice, 7, 195-206.

Dennis-Rounds, J. (1983). Community needs assessment spring 1982. Norwalk, CA: Cerritos College, Office of Institutional Research. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 226 794)

Dennis-Rounds, J., & Mayer, M. (1987). Cerritos Community College community needs assessment, 1987. Norwalk, CA: Cerritos College, Office of Institutional Research. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 289 552)

Lau, P. (1982). Pasadena Area Community College District community needs assessment study; Final report. Pasadena, CA: Pasadena Area Community College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 224-543)

Lohr, S. (1987). An evaluation study of community services, Mt. San Antonio College. Walnut, CA: Mount San Antonio College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 286 568)

Moore, G. (1975). An assessment of community need. Salem, OR: Chemeketa Community College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 121 374)

Morgan, L., & Feldman, D. (1977). Needs assessment in higher education: The Mott Foundation community college model. Educational Technology, 17, 48-52.

Needham, R. (1982). Patrick Henry Community College needs assessment: Comprehensive report. Greensboro, NC: North Carolina University & Martinsville, VA: Patrick Henry Community College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 220 145)

Nickens, J. M. (1977). Who takes community service courses and why. Community/Junior College Quarterly of Research and Practice, 2, 11-19.

Rosberg, W. (1981). An examination of the perceived educational need of a sample of the population of the service area of Kirkwood Community College. Nova University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 207 642)

Shaffer, R. (1990). General community needs assessment: Conducted for the development of the educational facilities master plan. San Luis Obispo, CA: Cuesta College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 328 315)

Strengthening Developing Institutions Program. (1981). Reading Area Community College needs assessment telephone survey. Reading, PA: Reading Area Community College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 225 608)

Sunal, C. S. (1979). A needs assessment approach to public interests and concerns for the community college. College Student Journal, 13, 139-146.

Williams, D., Jr., Caveny, R., & Murray, N. (1983). Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College community needs and assessment survey. Perkinston, MS: Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College & Hattiesburg, MS: University of Southern Mississippi. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 244 699)

Table 1

Interview Schedule

Telephone Number _____________

1. Are you aware that Rend Lake College offers community education classes?

2. Have you taken a class? What class? Would you take it again? If no, why not?

3. What radio stations do you listen to?

4. What newspapers do you read? What sections do you read?

5. Do you subscribe to cable TV?

6. Would you read a brochure about community education classes if it were sent to your home?

7. If you were to take a community education class, would mornings, afternoons or evenings be most convenient?

8. If you were to take a community education class, what would be most convenient--weekdays or Saturday? What weekdays would be most convenient?

9. I know it would depend on the class subject, but ideally how many times should community education classes meet to be most convenient for you: one time or once a week for two to six weeks?

10. Are there any community education classes you would like to see Rend Lake College offer?

11. I am going to list some age ranges. Please let me know when I say yours (8 categories).

12. I am going to list some education levels. Please let me know when I say the highest level you have completed (9 categories).

13. I am going to list some household income ranges. Please let me know when I say yours (6 categories).

14. What is your race?

Identify gender ___________

That's all the questions I have. Thank you for your time and assistance. If you have any questions concerning this survey, please contact _______. Her telephone number is _____.

Tracy Gilmore