‘What Excellent Community Colleges Do’

In What Excellent Community Colleges Do, Josh Wyner describes what he’s learned running the Aspen Institute’s awards for community college excellence.

The best colleges have improved graduation rates, learning, workforce success and equity, even as they struggle with inadequate funding, Wyner writes.

Valencia College in Florida, an Aspen winner, eliminated late registration — few latecomers will pass the class — but provided late-start sections of popular classes.

The best colleges don’t blame students for not knowing the “unwritten rules of how to navigate higher education,” adds Matt Reed, the Community College Dean.  

Colleges develop “guided pathways, targeted advising, mandatory counseling, student success courses” and the like to make clear the rules of the game, writes Reed. 

“Wyner is quite good on outlining some of the policy-based dilemmas that community colleges face,” he writes. “Most of the colleges he examines face many of the same fiscal and policy constraints as everyone else, but they’ve managed to find ways to move forward anyway.”

Aspen lists 150 top colleges

The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence has announced 150 colleges contending for the $1 million prize. The eligible institutions hail from 37 states. Texas, Florida, Kansas and Mississippi are especially well represented.

Colleges are judged on students’ persistence, completion and transfer rates, consistent improvement in outcomes over time and equity in outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Ten finalists will be announced in the fall and the winner will be named in early 2015.


Aspen’s Josh Wyner discusses community college excellence.

The best of colleges, the worst of colleges

Washington Monthly‘s 2013 college rankings include the best community collegesSaint Paul College (MN), North Florida Community College (FL), North Dakota State College of Science (ND), Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WI) and Lawson State Community College (AL) top the list.

The Monthly relied on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), which asks about teaching practices, student workload, interaction with faculty, and student support, and U.S. Department of Education measures of student retention and completion.

Some of the worst community colleges are in the otherwise thriving San Francisco Bay Area, writes Haley Sweetland Edwards.

City College of San Francisco is slated to lose accreditation next year because of “broken governance and fiscal mismanagement,” she writes.

If that happens, it will mark by many measures the most catastrophic implosion of a community college in our nation’s academic history. And more to the point, City College’s roughly 85,000 students, most of whom are minority or working class, will be out of luck. While they’ll be allowed to transfer with their credits, commute to another institution, or simply stick it out during the turmoil, the truth is that many won’t. They will be added instead to the roster of hundreds of thousands of students in the last decade who have enrolled in a community college in the greater San Francisco Bay Area with the hope of getting a credential or degree, of clawing their way to a better job and into the middle class, but have left school empty-handed.

Nearly all the schools in the Bay Area are bottom-feeders in the Monthly‘s community college rankings, which uses the same metrics as the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Out of 1,011 colleges rated, San Francisco City College ranked 842. In the East Bay, Laney College was 882, the College of Alameda was 971 and nearby Berkeley City College was 982. Heading south, “San Bruno’s Skyline College scored a relatively sparkling 772, but neighboring College of San Mateo, where a director of information technology was recently charged for selling the school’s computer equipment and embezzling the cash, ranked 845. Cañada College ranked 979. North of the city, the College of Marin ranked 839.

 So the question here is clear: How is it that a region of the world that prides itself on its booming growth and vibrant market—on “growing the jobs and companies of the future”—presides over a system of higher education that is so broken for so many?

California’s community colleges granted only 10.6 certificates or degrees per 100 students enrolled over a three-year period,  almost 40 percent worse than the national average, Edwards writes.

Funding is a problem:

Year after year, the community colleges have fallen victim to what one administrator described to me as the “Jan Brady problem”: the least “pretty” of California’s three sisters of higher education, it’s perennially “overshadowed and under-loved.”

In addition, California community colleges  are “a confederacy of semiautonomous fiefdoms.” State oversight is weak. “Shared governance” laws require district boards to share power with faculty, students, administration and staff. In some districts, board meetings become “hair-pulling, mudslinging turf wars that feel a little like Robert’s Rules of Order meets Lord of the Flies.”

In places where the local leadership is good—even visionary—the colleges are quite good, too. In places where the local leadership is bad or mediocre, the colleges are truly terrible. “Some campuses have a culture of destruction and some have a culture of collaboration,” observes Utpal Goswami, who became president of the College of the Redwoods just before the school was slapped with the regional accrediting agency’s most severe sanction.

Santa Barbara City College was a co-winner of this year’s Aspen Prize. The College of Marin, which serves a similar population, “grants only about eight certificates or degrees per 100 students over a three-year period—a success rate that’s barely half of Santa Barbara’s.”

Want money? Ask for it

Community college leaders need to get a lot better at fundraising, write Neil Kreisel and Vanessa L. Patterson, president and executive director of the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Underfunded community colleges risk becoming “separate but unequal institutions in the higher-education landscape,” warns a Century Foundation report.

. . . For each dollar given to a four-year college, only a cent or two goes to support community colleges. The Century Foundation’s study found that the average benefit from private and group donations, grants, investment returns, endowment income, and the like per full-time student to private research institutions was $46,342, compared with $372 for community colleges.

Santa Barbara and Walla Walla Community College, in Washington State, were awarded the Aspen Institute’s 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Without private philanthropy, community colleges can’t develop programs to help students succeed.

To begin with, community colleges need to develop relations with alumni, who often identify with the four-year college from which they earned a degree. A recent survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education showed that an average of one-half of one percent of alumni contributed to a community college in the 2012 fiscal year. The comparable number for four-year universities nationwide is 13 percent.

. . . Fewer than 60 percent of survey respondents said their community college maintained an annual operating budget for alumni relations. Among those institutions that specified an alumni-relations budget, the average annual amount was a paltry $23,611. To develop an alumni giving program—the cornerstone of marketing campaigns—community colleges need a healthy revenue flow for staff, technology, and donor-program development. In turn, increased donor dollars will improve existing academic programs and help support efforts to help students succeed.

There are signs of hope, they write. Community colleges have received federal grants to expand opportunities for first-generation students and increased support from foundations. Donations are up. But colleges remain short of the money needed to improve and innovate.

Going after bequests from baby boomers could help community college fund-raising campaigns, reports Community College Times.

“Within 10 years, 50 percent of community colleges will have robust planned-giving programs,” increasing from just 10 percent now, said Joe April, senior vice president with the Armistead Group, a consulting firm that specializes in fundraising for community colleges. “It’s going to be huge for the community college world.”

Community colleges provide good value

Many community colleges provide good value for students, write  John Engler and Richard W. Riley, who co-chair the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, in the Huffington Post.

Our nation’s 1,200 community colleges now enroll the majority of college freshmen and sophomores, they write. Many colleges are innovating to increase students’ learning, support low-income and minority students and work with local industries looking for well-trained workers.

At Santa Barbara City College, one of the 2013 Aspen Prize co-winners, professors push students to aspire to a bachelor’s degree.

They teach their classes to the standards of California’s four-year state universities, explicitly aligning curricula and extensive support services for students to succeed at institutions like nearby UC Santa Barbara. With success! The college has increased the share of full-time students who transfer to four-year schools to 57 percent — an exceptionally high rate.

At Walla Walla Community College, the other 2013 Aspen Prize co-winner, college leaders continually revamp programs so that students’ education meet the demands of jobs available in the region’s economy. And when the region struggles and there aren’t enough jobs, college leaders help to create them. In the last decade they founded a winemaking program, which helped jumpstart the local tourist economy. The college has become a national leader in programs ranging from wind energy to nursing to tractor maintenance. As a result, new graduates from Walla Walla earn wages that average 80 percent higher than those of other new hires in the region.

Tuition ranges from $1,400 a year in Santa Barbara to $4,000 per year in Walla Walla. Students don’t have to worry about higher interest rates on student loans because few need to borrow.

Aspen honors Santa Barbara, Walla Walla

Santa Barbara City College, which launches many students on the path to a bachelor’s degree, and Walla Walla Community College, which excels in job training, are winners of this year’s Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Each college will receive $400,000.

Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York, and Lake Area Technical Institute, in Watertown, S.D. finished third and fourth and each received $100,000.

Students at each college spoke at the presentation. Edith Rodriguez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, “learned about Santa Barbara City College in a high-school assembly shortly after her release from a juvenile detention center,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. A six-week summer bridge program and a support group for students interested in mathematics and science persuaded her to major in electrical engineering.

Getting in front of prospective students is vital, said Lori Gaskin, president of Santa Barbara. “We reach out to students like Edith even before they set foot on campus, before they realize that college is a potential opportunity for them,” she said in an interview. “Our students don’t necessarily have role models or cheerleaders at home.”

Sixty-four percent of the college’s first-time, full-time students transfer or graduate within three years, compared with the national average of 40 percent.

Walla Walla Community College also posts higher-than-average transfer rates, but won for its workforce training programs in high-demand fields including wine making, wind energy, and watershed ecology. ”In 2011 its new graduates earned $41,548, or 79 percent more than what other new hires in the region were making,” reports the Chronicle. “Since Walla Walla began its viticulture-degree program, the number of local wineries has grown from 16 to more than 170.”

Shugart: Completion is an ‘ecosystem’ issue

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.

College ‘connects’ remedial students with career paths

Low-level remedial students “have almost zero chance” to succeed in college without guidance and support, says Myrna Gonzalez, a developmental reading and writing instructor at Houston’s San Jacinto College. But the odds are improving. Gonzalez helped start Intentional Connections, which provides mentors to evaluate students’ career interests and academic issues, introduce them to faculty and let them “test drive” different programs.

“For example, if a student says he or she is sort of interested in culinary arts, then we introduce the student to the culinary arts department chair, and the student gets to attend two or three culinary arts classes (not for credit) to see if it will be a good fit. If that does not work out, then the student can test drive another program.”

Charles Powell is studying auto collision repair and improving his reading skills, thanks to Intentional Connections. He plans to earn a certificate and work in a body shop.

Some advocate placing low-level remedial students in Adult Basic Education (ABE), which is part of the K-12 system. Community colleges have expertise in educating adult learners, said Rebecca Goosen, associate vice chancellor for college preparatory programs. “At a college, low-performing developmental students can learn job skills in craft trades, they can get valuable on-the-job training through internships, they can earn occupational certificates, while at the same time they improve in core subjects like math and writing. They may not receive that type of education and training in ABE programs.”

To live up to their potential community colleges should create career pathways for remedial students, writes Mandy Zatynski on The Quick and the Ed.

Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota, a two-time finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, identifies different sets of readiness requirements for each of its programs, which has “virtually eliminated the necessity for remedial education.”

Lake Area Technical Institute touts a 76 percent completion rate, double the national average.

It’s the learning, stupid

How did Valencia College in Orlando, Florida win the Aspen Prize for community college excellence? President Sandy Shugart has six big ideas about what community colleges should to enable learning, writes Fawn Johnson.

1) Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.
2) Start right.
3) Connection and direction.
4) The college is how the students experience us, not how we experience them.
5) The purpose of assessment is to improve learning.
6) Collaboration.

Valencia’s graduation rate is nearly three times the average at large urban community colleges.  Other colleges are looking for Valencia’s “secret sauce.”

Many community colleges enroll huge numbers of students, collect the tuition and then see most of them drop out.

Valencia sacrifices its enrollment numbers (and the accompanying dollars) by turning students away who fail to register before the first day of a class. Research shows that students who register late are more likely to drop out, so Shugart says it makes sense to head those students off.

The college integrates advising with teaching. “Faculty members are expected to participate in plotting their students’ graduation paths, but each program also has an embedded full-time career adviser to track students’ progress,” Johnson writes.

Faculty members test teaching ideas in a three-year “learning academy.”  Adjuncts are paid more if they participate in developing their teaching skills.

Valencia invests most heavily in improving 15 to 20 “gateway courses” that make up 40 percent of the curriculum for first-year students.

Planning is required. “When I was in college, the idea was that your freshman and sophomore years was an exploratory time. Totally gone. It is not exploratory,” said Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student services. “Decide when you’re in the womb what you want to do.”

All students are expected to map out a graduation plan in their first semester. They must “connect” with faculty members, career advisers, tutors, and student-services staffers. Tutors—usually students themselves—know the professors personally and often sit in on classes to seek out students who might feel shy about asking for help. Tutoring centers are located in central campus areas, and they are packed.

Valencia constantly analyzes student-achievement data, but instructors are judged on their teaching, not their students’ test scores.

Wine saves Walla Walla

By building the wine industry, Walla Walla Community College‘s Enology and Viticulture program may have saved a community, according to Learning Matters. Eighty percent of program graduates find jobs in the wine industry.

The college is one of 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize for community college excellence.