Improving completion requires understanding the higher education “ecosystem,” writes Sanford C. Shugart, president of Aspen Prize-winning Valencia College in Florida.
Community colleges “are being asked to achieve much better results with fewer resources to engage a needier student population in an atmosphere of serious skepticism where all journalism is yellow and our larger society no longer exempts our institutions (nor us) from the deep distrust that has grown toward all institutions,” writes Shugart in Inside Higher Ed.
His principles for moving the needle on student completion start with a caution: “Be careful what and how you are measuring — it is sure to be misused.”
. . . Consider a student who comes to a community college, enrolls full-time, and after a year of successful study is encouraged to transfer to another college. This student is considered a noncompleter at the community college and isn’t considered in the measure of the receiving institution at all.
. . . Is there any good reason to exclude part-time students from the measures? How about early transfers? Should non-degree-seeking students be in the measure? When is a student considered to be degree‐seeking? How are the measures, inevitably used to compare institutions with very different missions, calibrated to those missions? How can transfer be included in the assessment and reporting when students swirl among so many institutions, many of which don’t share student unit record information easily?
Completion rates should be calculated for different groups depending on where they start — college ready? low remedial? — so students can calculate their own odds and colleges can design interventions, Shugart recommends. College outcomes measures should be based on college-ready students and should reflect the value added during the college years.
Students experience higher education as an “ecosystem,” Shugart writes. Few community college students get all their education at one institution.
They swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. . . . Articulation of credit will have to give way to carefully designed pathways that deepen student learning and accelerate their progression to completion.
Students need to know that completion matters, writes Shugart. Florida has “the country’s strongest 2+2 system of higher education” with common course numbering, ”statewide articulation agreements that work” and a history of successful transfers. Yet community college students are told to transfer when they’re “ready,” regardless of whether they’ve completed an associate degree.
Students at Valencia, Seminole State, Brevard and Lake Sumter are offered a new model, “Direct Connect,” which guarantees University of Central Florida admission to all associate degree graduates in the region. “It is something they can count on, plan for, and commit to. Earn the degree and you are in.”
Learning is what matters, Shugart adds. Increasing completion rates improves the local economy and community only if students learn “deeply and effectively in a systematic program of study, with a clearer sense of purpose in their studies and their lives.”
He suggests: designing degree pathways across institutional boundaries, encouraging students to “make earlier, more grounded choices of major,” requiring an associate degree to transfer and providing transfer guarantees. In addition, Shugart calls for research on higher education ecosystems and new metrics for measuring performance.