Insights & News

Norco: A Student-Centered College


From her first visit to campus, Maria Barragan says that Norco College “felt like home.” As a recent transplant from Los Angeles County, Maria had no friends or former classmates on campus. But when another student saw her looking for the room to take placement tests and offered to escort her across campus, Maria knew this was the right place to start her college journey. “Everyone is like that,” she says, “students, faculty, staff—everyone really cares.”

Norco’s welcoming environment is just one aspect of a college-wide effort to make sure that students are set up for success as soon as they arrive on campus. In 2015, an internal review showed that fewer than 10% of first-time freshmen were completing a degree or certificate within four years. Faculty and campus leaders recognized that success rate was “just not good enough,” according to Norco President Dr. Bryan Reece. The college aims to do nothing short of flipping that ratio for its 13,000 students—the majority of whom are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.

“If we can help students have a good and successful experience, we can change a whole family, for generations.”

Administrators and faculty came together to develop an ambitious plan to make sure the entire institution was organized for student success, work that is now being supported through Norco’s participation in the California Guided Pathways Project. “It’s not just an initiative,” said Dr. Reece, “you have to change how you operate as an institution.” For Norco, that meant rethinking the academic structure and overhauling how the college provides counseling to students. The college now organizes academic departments and student services into four schools, or “meta majors”—arts and humanities, business and management, social and behavioral studies, and STEM. Students enroll in a meta major in the first semester so they can explore within their area of interest while earning credits that contribute to their degree goals.

These meta majors are also hubs for students to access counseling, transfer, and career information. Each program has dedicated counselors, faculty advisors, and a cohort of student peer mentors to help students create education plans to lead them on the path to transfer or career. Along with improved technology to notify students automatically of registration deadlines, this team-based approach is helping Norco radically redesign how counseling works at the college. The college is shifting to a case management approach that will allow staff to target support for the students that need it most, rather than touching only those students who seek them out. Thinking about how to use resources to focus on student needs has already led to small, but important changes, like extending counseling hours for students who are only able to take night classes.

Norco’s leaders admit that this kind of institutional transformation is hard work. Many of the conversations around these changes have been difficult, but they continue to move forward because faculty, staff, and leaders share a mindset of meeting students where they are to help them succeed. As Dr. Reece stresses, “If we can help students have a good and successful experience, we can change a whole family, for generations.”

It is clear that Norco’s investment in its students will also have long-term effects on the college and the community it serves. Maria’s experience on that first day inspired her to get involved with the student association, which she served as president this year. After completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree, she wants to return to Norco as a guidance counselor.  “We’re getting higher education for the community,” says Chris Castillo, a vice president of the Associated Students of Norco College. Chris plans to go on to study business at Cal Poly Pomona and eventually become a college administrator. Both Chris and Maria credit faculty, staff, and the whole community at Norco with setting them on the path toward college success as first-generation students and Dreamers. “We want to come back and pay it forward.”

Photo: Chris Castillo and Maria Barragan at Norco College’s spring 2018 graduation.


Read more about Guided Pathways here