Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pre-Congress Summit Focuses on Completion

With the attention of the White House, governors, policymakers, and philanthropic foundations all focused on increasing the number of Americans who hold a college degree or credential, "suddenly it seems that higher education is really where the action is," Samuel Cargile, vice president of The Lumina Foundation, observed during ACCT's Summit on Completion. "With that, it's also an opportune time to ask some critical questions."

Community college leaders attending the one-day summit in Toronto -- immediately preceding and setting the tone for the 2010 ACCT Leadership Congress -- did just that, focusing a critical eye on the ways in which community colleges are working to shift their model from access to success. “It’s vitally important that trustees are involved in this conversation,” said ACCT Chair Thomas Bennett, trustee at Parkland College in Illinois.

The one-day summit followed the White House Summit on Community Colleges earlier in the month and the creation of the Skills for America's Future, a White House-led effort to build partnerships between industry and community colleges. Those moves mirror initiatives launched by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation, both of which have set ambitious goals for increasing the number of college graduates.

"The goals may be a little different, the language may be a little different, but everybody is getting on board and knowing we've got to do a better job," says Linda Baer, senior program officer of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown discussed how the completion agenda has become embedded in a variety of initiatives that ACCT has become involved in, including the Voluntary Framework for Accountability, Democracy's Colleges Call to Action, and the Governance Institute for Student Success.

"We are very serious about creating the toolkit you need to advance this agenda," Brown said.

Baer described how the Gates Foundation's Completion by Design initiative focuses on "a pathway model" that creates connections for students from enrollment through completion. Under such a system, "[students] don't just come through the doors and wander around," she said.

Noting that one in six blue-collar workers lost his or her job during the current recession, Dr. Ronald Williams, vice president of The College Board, stressed the importance of improving completion rates in stark terms. "The middle holds America together," he said, warning that the declining middle class poses a threat to democracy. "The work you do is in closing the gap that I see expanding and accelerating."

From the business perspective, it's critical that community colleges prepare students for today's global -- and increasingly uncertain -- economy, stressed Philip Berry, president of Philip Berry Associates and vice-chair of the City University of New York. "We have to come up with methodologies that help students where they are, not where we want them to be," he said.

Data is the key to addressing completion issues, stressed Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin's Community College Leadership Program. "Community colleges have lived long and pretty comfortably with the anecdote—students whose lives have changed. But...[anecdotes] do not tell the story of the typical student experience... what we have got to get ready to do is understand honestly what happens to students when they move through our system—or don't."

While students have many reasons for failing to receive a degree from community colleges, the reality is that poor students, older students and minorities face much higher odds of completing college, McClenney said. "Until the choice not to persist or graduate is equitably distributed across students by race, age, or income level, this is an argument we can no longer countenance," she said.

To tackle persistent completion issues, colleges will need not only systems and processes to track students, but to disaggregate that data to get the "full picture" of how all students are performing. "Once you have data, you have to be willing to use it," she added.

Based on visits to 1,200 colleges in more than 30 states, Dr. Byron McClenney, project director for Achieving the Dream and a senior lecturer and fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed to a number of key practices that support the completion agenda, including:
  • Leaders that are engaged and pay continuous attention to progress on student success issues.
  • A shared an enacted vision around a student success agenda
  • Planning and budgeting that are aligned with the agenda
  • A culture of evidence
  • Broad consensus among students, faculty, staff and the community
  • Having the student success agenda impact policy, practices, and procedures. "Once you get serious, it starts to permeate how you make decisions," he said.
  • Integration of other initiatives, including accreditation
  • Focused professional development aligned with student completion objectives.
"None of these things come easily," McClenney said, pointing to ending late registration, embedding basic skills in career programs, study groups, and student success courses as potentially promising approaches that can come out of such practices.

As part of its Complete to Compete initiative, The National Governors Association is developing its own metrics to help state leaders track the performance of their higher education institutions. "You can't have a substantive policy conversation until and unless you have a clear picture of how something's performing," said Travis Reindl, program director, who echoed others' insistence that disaggregating data is critical. "To have goals that are lasting and powerful, you have to know if you're moving towards them."

NGA's proposed metrics are divided between measurements of student progress -- including remediation, entry, success in first year math and English courses, and credit accumulation -- and outcomes, including numbers of degrees, graduation rates, and measurements of the time and credits required to attain a degree.

While acknowledging that community colleges are facing unprecedented financial pressure as enrollments rise and funding falls, speakers agreed that these challenges would not impede the focus on completion. "There's no evidence that connects resources to results," McClenney said, "It's not how much money we have, but how we spend the money we have."

As proof, McClenney pointed to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's 100,000 Lives Campaign, which sought to reduce the number of preventable deaths in U.S. hospitals. By examining data and asking tough questions, the healthcare community was able to meet its own ambitious goal.

"They did it," McClenney said. "All of you can figure out your share of this goal... the 15 or 16 million college graduates our nation needs for our communities to thrive."

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