Wednesday, October 12, 2011

2011 ACCT Congress: Symposium on Student Success Focuses on Advancing Board Goals

Held immediately before the 42nd Annual ACCT Leadership Congress, the Symposium on Student Success brought together more than 80 trustees, 14 college presidents, and representatives from 10 state associations and 22 national organizations to discuss how trustees can advance the completion agenda on their own campuses.

Sponsored by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the symposium’s attendees spent much of the two days developing model policy goals that governing boards can use to “consider how well they are helping guide their colleges towards an even stronger commitment to student success,” ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown said at the Congress opening session.

The policy goals, which will be further refined during a Thursday town hall meeting, focus on a range of issues, including effective partnerships, ways to foster an institutional focus on student success, and the importance of balancing student success with community colleges’ commitment to access and equity. “We are very proud of this work and our ability to engage in it,” Brown told symposium attendees. “You cannot underestimate the importance of putting the right people in a room for a set amount of time. That’s how you move the needle.”

Dr. Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, told symposium attendees that community colleges and the K-12 systems her boards represent must work together to address the challenges of a time when expectations are higher and the needs are greater than ever before. “We can get this right by working together," she said. "How we align ourselves to serve the neediest students is absolutely critical.”

Dr. Linda Baer, senior program officer with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stressed that trustee leadership is critical in sustaining a momentum shift at their institutions. “We can’t invest in anything more important than the leadership of the trustees for the important work to be done—building and sustaining community colleges to optimize student success,” she said, urging attendees to focus on narrowing a looming skills gap that has already left jobs unfilled at a time of high unemployment.

Symposium speakers reiterated that proven practices have emerged from the growing body of research on student completion issues, including simplifying choices for students, providing clearer pathways, engaging students through programs such as orientations, advisories, and supplemental instruction, and tracking student progress from their first days on campus. But they also urged trustees to focus on ensuring that their colleges weave completion into their overall mission and strategic goals. “Sometimes I think we’ve studied things to death,” Baer said. “It’s time to take action.”

“The hardest work is not changing practice, but changing cultures,” added Dr. Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “The board plays an extremely important role in... shifting to an understanding that access without success in 21st century America is an empty promise... and [that] we’re not talking about itty-bitty changes around the edges.”

“If you owned your power with respect to the issue of student success, the conversation on the campuses you govern could be very different,” agreed Dr. John N. Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. “I hope you will own this power and focus on this issue in new ways.”

McClenney told trustees it was critical to “frame the way you think about what you need to think about. It’s not your role to decide what the curriculum and interventions are going to be,” she says. “But it surely is your role to ask questions about what the college is doing and monitor the data to see if these actions are closing achievement gaps.”

Completion by Design, the five-year initiative funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is now in the planning phase on 21 campuses in four states. Emphasizing programs that “start with scale” and reach broad swaths of students, Completion by Design has also led to a change in mindset among its four managing partners. “We had seen incremental process,” said Dr. Richard Carpenter, chancellor of Lone Star College, whose Completion by Design efforts will reach one-third of all community college students in Texas. “What intrigued us was the capability to be transformational.”

With its focus on developing model policy goals, the symposium confirmed the critical role trustees play in that transformation. “Effective governance has never been more important,” Carpenter said. “Boards really need to be bold.”

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