Thursday, October 8, 2009

2009 ACCT Leadership Congress: Foundations Identify Developmental Education, Focus on Outcomes as Key Challenges

Members of two of the largest foundations involved in higher education and a regional provider entering the higher education realm for the first time shared their perceptions of the joint challenges community colleges and their philanthropic funders face during a Thursday town hall meeting at the 2009 ACCT Leadership Congress. Common themes quickly emerged, including the need to restructure developmental education and reshift thinking to a stronger focus on outcomes.

Earlier in the day, Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, outlined the group’s goal to have 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality college degrees or credentials by 2025. During the town hall, Dewane Matthews, Lumina’s vice president for policy and strategy, outlined some of the emerging issues the foundation is studying as it evaluates ways to meet that goal, chief among them the question of developmental education. “We’re not going to get to these higher attainment levels with an approach that writes off a large proportion of individuals because they are considered inadequate for some vague definition of college readiness,” Matthews said. “We have to reframe the entire issue and destigmatize developmental education... and create a system that takes people from wherever they are and takes them where they need to go. It’s not remediation -- it’s a completely different orientation.”

Matthews added that the Lumina foundation has also realized the “centrality of learning” involved in meeting attainment goals. “Attainment is tied to real skills... [that higher education] needs to better connect to curriculum,” he said. “Fortunately, campuses are willing to become part of that conversation.”

Diane Troyer, senior program officer of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, described how developmental education surfaced as the “number-one logjam” the foundation has encountered since launching its new post-secondary mission about a year ago. With the foundation’s goal “focused on the disparity between the completion rates of low-income students versus those who do not come out of a background of poverty,” Troyer urged college leaders to consider ways to “realign our institutions around completion.”

“Can we as [community] colleges shift our thinking from an enrollment system to a completion-driven system?” she asked. “Is access access if it doesn’t achieve success?”

As the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund studies way to enter the higher education realm in the San Francisco Bay area, officials are conducting research and networking with both other private and public funders, said Elizabeth Gutierrez, program director for education opportunities. “The federal stimulus has been the most recent wave that has brought us together as funders and grantees,” she said. The Fund’s key issues mirror those of Gutierrez’s national counterparts: scalability, leveraging its work, and outcomes.

While foundation representatives acknowledged that measuring outcomes remains a thorny issue for community colleges, “community colleges need to take the leadership on defining the measures,” Troyer said, pointing to such projects as the Voluntary Framework of Accountability. Matthews suggested that college leaders consider reframing their entire thinking around outcomes: “Our data, our structures, our funding, our policy discussions are all based around institutions,” he said. “What we’re really talking about is a fundamental shift away from an institutional frame to a student frame, with all their incredible backgrounds and diversity of needs and infinite variety of outcomes.”

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