Wednesday, October 10, 2012

2012 Symposium on Completion: Bringing a 'Culture of Evidence' to Bear on Student Success

A focus on data has become essential to community college efforts around the student success agenda, stressed speakers at ACCT's third annual symposium on college completion. "Analytics and data are critical to you and your students being able to see inside the black box that is higher education," said Dr. Diana G. Oblinger, president and CEO of Educause. "We need to learn how to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer."

Held with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, the two-day symposium brought together community college leaders and thought partners from more than 20 organizations at a time in which the recession has dramatically accelerated the critical needs around completion. A full two-thirds of new and replacement jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2018, said Dr. James Applegate, vice president of program development for Lumina Foundation. "Jobs for high school graduates are just dropping off the charts, while for [postsecondary degree and certificate holders], we've fully recovered," he said. "Don't let anyone tell you we don't need more people with postsecondary degrees."

Another shift caused by the recession is that the number of incoming students entering community colleges with the goal of attaining a degree has increased from 59 percent to 83 percent in just a few years, said Dr. Kay McClenney, director for the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's gone up dramatically because your students know a postsecondary credential is not just a ticket to the middle class and economic mobility, but in fact, the only ticket," McClenney said. "There's no more powerful lever for change than data that paints a picture of our community college students and tells the truth about which groups are disproportionately falling through the cracks."

Stressing the importance of community college leaders establishing a "culture of evidence," McClenney and other speakers emphasized that the role of trustees is not to micromanage and sift through data, but to establish priorities around student success, identify appropriate metrics, and hold their CEOs accountable to them. "You are local leaders who can move this agenda," said Dr. Narcisa Polonio, ACCT executive vice president for education, research, and board leadership services. "What's important to you becomes important to the institution."

The Voluntary Framework of Accountability continues to emerge as a key tool to help colleges understand and communicate the data around student success. With a beta of the tool used to collect data from colleges to be tested early next year, the goal is to begin active data collection by late fall of 2013, said Dr. Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, which beta tested the framework. "I look at the VFA locally as a catalyst to building my understanding of the institution to focus on governance, and nationally as a catalyst for understanding our areas of opportunity for the future," she said.

A public policy agenda developed by community college leaders at last year's symposium and during a town hall meeting at the 42nd Annual ACCT Leadership Congress is now available on ACCT's website. Speakers urged member boards to use the agenda as a roadmap to developing policies that support student success and completion.

ACCT President & CEO J. Noah Brown put the importance of putting the data into context succinctly. "Every one of those numbers is a face, and every one of those faces is a human being," he told symposium attendees. "And every human being deserves the right to live in dignity. That's why you're here."

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