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Tim Barshinger, Harrisburg Area Community College 
Radecka Appiah-Padi, Harrisburg Area Community College 
Chrissy Davis Jones, Harrisburg Area Community College 

Colleges are institutions steeped in tradition. Those traditions can be both good and bad, as some legacies can be inherently prohibitive to student success, compliance requirements, and equity and inclusion. One of the traditions in higher education that can be problematic for student success, particularly at a community college, is the “cafeteria model” (Bailey et al., 2015) for course selection and academic planning. The cafeteria model, a vestige of the university rooted in the notion of providing students choice and flexibility, can be overwhelming for community college students because of its complexity and the number of choices it provides. The result is that students can drown in a sea of options. 

Identifying the Problem

Beginning in the fall of 2021, Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) was forced to examine and revise its traditional model of student success and particularly its reliance on the cafeteria model as the result of declining enrollment and retention rates, stagnant completion, a review of Title IV compliance, and an overarching need to improve student success outcomes. HACC recognized the importance of adopting best and research-based practices in student support delivery, and, over the years, several incremental changes have been made to operationalize a variety of student success practices and to improve student outcomes. These changes included but were not limited to the adoption of a relational advising approach, the utilization of advising curriculum clusters, and a shared advising model (faculty advisors, professional academic advisors, and success coaches).

While the adoption of those practices was central to enhancing academic advising service delivery, overall the institution did not realize systemic improvements in student outcomes because HACC still often took a siloed approach to implementing the best practices and still employed a cafeteria model. In addition, critical pieces of some best practices were not mandated and therefore not institutionalized. For example, in adopting relational advising as the approach for student advising, the college did not mandate formal documented education planning as a core component of academic advising. However, effective academic advising requires the advisor and student to engage in the co-creation of educational plans that align the curriculum with the student’s experiences to provide a pathway to completion and success (Darling, 2015).

The result is that HACC’s students continued to languish in the cafeteria model. In fact, before the fall 2021 semester, less than 20% of the student population had educational plans on file, which led to a significant portion of the students accumulating excess credits. The accumulation of excess credits impacted students’ ability to persist and lowered the College’s retention and completion rates. More importantly, there was a relationship between the excess credits and students’ financial aid satisfactory academic progress metrics such as pace to progress and maximum timeframe. In short, the cafeteria model and the lack of educational plans were putting students at risk for non-completion—and it needed to be deconstructed.

Unfortunately, this problem of excess credits is not isolated to just HACC. Data from Complete College America (2011), even as early as 2011, found that “students receiving associate degrees earned on average 89 credits, although just 60 credits are typically required” (Zeidenberg, 2015, p. 125). These excess credits cost students time as they delay completion—and money with out-of-pocket costs for tuition, fees, and books or additional student loan debt.

Attacking the Problem

To address this issue and promote greater student success and completion, HACC moved to implement enhancements after a thorough review of the issue in the fall of 2021. These steps included the following:

  • Required educational plans for all students. The most important enhancement was requiring all students to have an electronically recorded educational plan. That move was new for HACC, but it was necessary to help foster student success. This move was phased in over several semesters.

    • Piloted in pre-health professions students in Spring 2022.

    • New students: during the Fall 2022 registration cycle.

    • Continuing students: during the Spring 2023 registration cycle.

  • Creation of a working group to address the issue. This working group included members from advising, the welcome center, financial aid, student success, and registration and records. This working group attacked the problem in this manner.

    • Articulated the problem.

    • Process mapped a solution.

    • Identified technology tools available to use.

      • HACC first used Navigate educational plan maps in its initial work but has since moved to using Degree Works for educational plans.

  • Offered professional development for the educational planning process and on-demand resources to faculty advisors and professional advisors. Advisors needed to have training and tools to support students and the creation of their educational plans.

  • Coupled the new educational plan process with an early registration push. HACC knew that part of its retention issue was with students waiting to register, so it created campaigns to get students to register early using their new educational plans. 

  • Identified data needed to track progress. HACC knew its teams needed to use data and metrics to ensure the new educational plan process was working as designed to support student success. Therefore, it began tracking the following data points relative to this new process.

    • Projected number of incoming new students.

      • How many were financial aid eligible or self-pay?

    • Continuing students eligible to return.

      • How many students were financial aid-eligible or self-pay?

    • The number of students with/without an educational plan.

    • The number of students who had registered (with/without a plan).

    • The number of plans checked.

    • The percentage of ineligible classes found (to ensure fewer excess credits).

  • Delegated responsibilities. To ensure success, HACC assigned each team member in the working group (and others within the Student Success division) specific tasks related to the new educational plan process. The college then tracked progress with short weekly check-in meetings.

HACC’s new focused approach—moving away from the cafeteria model—and built around educational plan requirements and collaboration across units has led to many positive student success outcomes.

  • Increase in retention.

    • Fall 2022 to Spring 2023: retention increased to 74.1% (up 2.6%).

    • Fall 2022 to Fall 2023: retention increased to 54.1% (up 3.8%), which is the second-highest fall-to-fall retention rate in the last ten years.

  • Increase in early registration.

    • By coupling educational planning with priority registration within the first two weeks of the cycle, priority registration for credential-seeking students increased from 29.0% for Fall 2022 to 35.6% for Fall 2023. While early registration (within the first month of registration) increased from 36.4% for Fall 2022 to 41.0% in Fall 2023.

  • Decrease in ineligible class registrations.

    • From Summer 2022 to the present, ineligible class registrations decreased from a high of 13% to an average of 6% and a low of 3%.

    • As a result of this improvement, fewer students are taking classes that don’t apply to their degree, and HACC is using fewer personnel resources to help those students get into the right classes.


The many successes of HACC’s new focused educational plan process were the result of a multi-pronged approach all aimed at ensuring students did not get lost in the overwhelming options of the cafeteria model. Through the use of educational plans, staff development, cross-functional collaboration to eliminate silos, and the use of data, HACC was able to enact positive change for students. More HACC students are staying on track, which will lead to them taking fewer excess credits, incurring less debt, and speeding up their time to completion. This change will have the greatest impact on our newest students, who have been able to stay on track from day one, but all HACC students are benefiting from deconstructing the cafeteria model.

In the end, colleges are still institutions steeped in tradition, but those traditions can be changed, and sometimes should be changed. After all, in the words of Winston Churchill, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”


Bailey, T. R., Jaggars, S. S., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America's community colleges: 
A clearer path to student success. Harvard University Press.

Complete College America. (2011). Time is the enemy. Author.

Darling, R. (2015). The academic adviser. The Journal of General Education, 64(2), 90–98. https://doi.org/10.1353/jge.2015.0007 

Zeidenberg, M. (2015). Valuable learning or “spinning their wheels”? Understanding excess
credits earned by community college associate degree completers. Community 
College Review, 43(2), 123–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091552115571595

Posted in: 2024 March 47:1


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