Structure leads to success

Community colleges are improving pass rates and persistence by integrating “high-impact practices” into coherent academic and career pathways reports the Center for Community College Student Engagement. A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways links a clear class attendance policy, participation in a student success course and on-time registration to completion of remedial and gatekeeper courses and persistence.

Guttman Community College students working  in the Information Commons.

Guttman Community College students use Mediascape technology to collaborate in the Information Commons.

Structured group learning experiences — orientation, accelerated or fast-track developmental education, first-year experience, student success course and learning community — increased the odds of success significantly.

“Attending college should not be a series of disconnected classes and experiences, but instead, it should be a complete-and completed-educational journey,” says Kay McClenney, center director emeritus.

Among the colleges placing students in structured pathways are: Alamo Colleges (Texas), Miami Dade College, Guttman Community College (New York City) and Long Beach City College (California).

Klamath Community College (Oregon) has designed career pathways leading to certificates.

Lake Washington Institute of Technology (Washington) has increased success rates by integrating basic skills instruction with vocational instruction through the states I-BEST approach.

Manufacturers see skills gap

Workers assemble the Chevy Volt electric vehicles and Opel Amperas at the General Motors Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Oct. 11, 2011, in Hamtramck, Mich.

More than half a million skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to the labor skills gap in the U.S., according to one estimate.

Many job applicants lack the basic math and computer skills needed to train for high-tech manufacturing jobs, employers complain.

U.S. manufacturing employs more than 12 million workers.  An estimated 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs are unfilled, according to a 2012 Deloitte study.  That could increase as more baby boomers retire.

“If we can’t fill the skills gap, it’s going to be very difficult to be competitive in the global market,” said Ted Toth, vice president and managing director of manufacturing technologies at Rosenberger-Toth, which manufactures parts for satellites and cellphone towers.

. . . “To understand the skills gap, we have to understand how the public understands manufacturing,” the head of the New Jersey-based company said. “They see it as a dark, dirty, dangerous industry.”

Young people need to be told that manufacturing is a viable alternative to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, said Toth. Employees are “blue tech” workers, he said.  “They utilize technology such as computerized machines and robotics, and also in new and exciting careers in three to four times the minimum wage.”

Business leaders in two western Ohio counties are working to interest high school students in skilled trades jobs. The Auglaize & Mercer County Business Education Alliance is raising money to hire an outreach coordinator who will visit local high schools.

Electrical contractor Jack Buschur wants to find high school graduates interested in training to be electricians. “We have lots of opportunities,” Buschur says. “We’d like to keep our young people in the area and see them make a very good living.”

Bring back shop classes, writes Josh Mandel, Ohio state treasurer, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.Too many young people have four-year liberal-arts degrees, are thousands in debt and find themselves serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time at the mall,” he writes. “Many of them would have been better off with a two-year skilled-trade or technical education that provides the skills to secure a well-paying job.”

Myth: Community colleges are inefficient

It’s a “big fact” that the economic returns to college are high, write Clive Belfield and Davis Jenkins in a Community College Research center paper. It’s a “big myth” that the “college affordability crisis is actually an efficiency crisis caused by wasteful spending by colleges.” That’s especially true for community colleges.

Neglect of this fact and acceptance of this myth have impaired policymaking, resulting in reduced state funding and new practices (more adjuncts, larger classes, online courses) that cut spending and lower quality.

If colleges invest in improving quality, they’ll improve efficiency as well, write Belfield and Jenkins.

Community colleges serve many underprepared students who need substantial support, they point out. Educating college-ready students is cheaper and easier. 

Reforms to remediation, which likely require more (not less) resources, are therefore essential, as are reforms that provide a better articulation between high school and college. Much of the potential efficiency gain would come from improvements at the high school level.

For students already in college, barriers to completion include no-credit remedial courses, college-level courses that don’t meet degree requirements at transfer destinations and “the earning of extraneous credits outside a program area.”

Reforms should include creating more educationally coherent program pathways that lead to student end goals, building on-ramps to help students get into a program of study quickly, and tracking student progress and providing feedback using information technology and reorganized advising.

Low-income and first-generation students, who disproportionately enroll in community colleges, need more information on the returns to college, write Belfield and Jenkins. They also need more “structure and guidance” to succeed in college.

North Carolina sets college pathways

North Carolina has launched a four-year plan to improve student success, says Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System.

New college students will enter a structured program, reports Community College Times. Even high school students in dual enrollment programs will be encouraged to enroll tuition-free in a pathway that leads to a technical or bachelor’s degree.

The system also used research and analysis to identify and address “momentum loss points”—points where students become bogged down and too often pulled off course in their goals toward completion. In community colleges, that usually happens in a student’s first semester or first academic year, particularly in developmental education programs.

“We found too many students entering developmental education without exiting, which is why we have completely redesigned our efforts in North Carolina,” Ralls said.

The colleges tapped expert math and English faculty members across the state to re-engineer curriculum to shorten the length of courses and to develop modules to let students get the courses they need.

The state system also worked with high schools to align career and college readiness testing. Now students will know early whether they’re on track to take college-level community college classes.

Eighty technical programs in in transportation, energy, manufacturing, environment and construction now offer “stackable” credentials. A student can earn a certificate, leave college for the workforce and return later to add an advanced credential.

Linked learning expands in Oakland

Linked learning academies are expanding in the troubled Oakland school district, reports Kathryn Baron on EdSource. Forty-two percent of students in grades 10, 11 and 12 are in programs that link schoolwork with internships and job shadowing. Gary Yee, acting superintendent, wants to raise that to 80 percent.

At Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, students intern in hospitals, medical offices, retirement homes and elementary school programs for at-risk children.

Oakland high school students in career academies score better on standardized tests and have higher graduation rates than students not enrolled in an academy. (Graphic: Oakland Unified)

Oakland high school students in career academies score better on standardized tests and have higher graduation rates than students not enrolled in an academy. (Graphic: Oakland Unified)


Linked learning students have more access to college-prep courses required by California universities, concluded Education Trust-West after a two-year study at four high schools. In addition, linked learning students were more likely to graduate than similar students at high schools that don’t offer the program. African American, Latino and low-income students in linked learning programs had graduation rates 9 to 29 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

Oakland Unified’s analysis found fewer absences, lower suspension rates and higher test scores for students in linked learning academies.

The district, the city of Oakland and Peralta Community College District plan to collaborate on creating pathways from high school to college to career.

Most Oakland Unified graduates enroll in community college. However, high school and community college systems aren’t aligned, said Laurie Scolari, who oversees the California Community College Linked Learning Initiative at Career Ladders Project, a nonprofit in Oakland.

The new collaboration will make it possible to follow high school graduates who enroll in community college, writes Baron. “That will give a clear picture of whether high schools are doing a good job of preparing students for college-level work and where the gaps are between academy and community college programs.”

Philanthropy is powerful — too powerful

Wealthy philanthropists are transforming public — but not private — higher education, writes Robin Rogers, an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in a Chronicle of Higher Ed commentary. The Gates Foundation‘s focus on improving college attendance, graduation rates and career opportunities for low-income students “could further institutionalize the divide between the roughly 72 percent of American students who attend public colleges and the 28 percent who attend private colleges, even if it improved economic mobility between the lower and middle classes,” she warns.

At CUNY, for example, a Gates-style systemwide reform effort known as Pathways recently received a 92-percent vote of no confidence from the faculty. Faculty criticism has focused on Pathways’ decreased academic standards, reductions in required course credit hours, and cuts to nonapplied areas—including philosophy and languages­—to increase graduation rates.

. . . One Gates-supported project that deserves scrutiny is Degree Compass software, which enables colleges to collect students’ demographic data and prior grades to match them with courses and majors in which similar students have been successful. George Orwell could not have created a better system to reinforce social stratification and inequality.

Philanthropists are shaping public policy, Rogers writes. She believes we need “a viable public option in higher education that is not determined by the priorities and judgments of the very wealthy, however well intentioned they may be.”

Private non-profit colleges rely heavily on the “economic elite” for funding. If any higher ed sector is on the other side of the philanthropy divide, it’s the for-profit colleges.

Structured paths lead to success

Creating structured pathways to graduation will help more community college students achieve their goals, said presenters at the American Association of Community Colleges meeting in San Francisco.

Completion by Design, a Gates Foundation initiative, is working with community colleges on mandatory student advising and  structured course sequences, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. College leaders from North Carolina, Ohio and Florida discussed their efforts.

Jobs for the Future‘s completion campaign focuses on getting students into college-level classes as quickly as possible.

Many students who end up in remedial courses don’t need to be there, but they don’t realize the importance of the tests that colleges often use as the sole placement criterion, said Gretchen Schmidt, a program director at Jobs for the Future. “They didn’t prepare, they had kids in the hall running around, or they rushed through the test to get back to work … and as a result they ended up two levels down” in developmental courses.

Students who start in remedial courses rarely earn a degree. Recent research has shown students placed in high-level developmental courses do just as well at the college level.

North Carolina now lets high school graduates with a 2.6 grade point average or better skip community college placement tests and start at the college level.

A new Connecticut law limits state funding for remedial education to a single course.

Florida may “cut off nearly all support for stand-alone remedial education,” reports the Chronicle.

Lenore P. Rodicio, director of Miami Dade College‘s Completion by Design effort, worries that’s going too far.

“Seventy percent of our students come in needing some kind of remedial education, many of them from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and this could close the door to them,” she said.

Her college offers a one-week boot camp for students who place into remedial education to allow them to zero in on the skills they need to improve, and it’s looking at other ways to get students into credit-bearing courses faster.

In another session, California Community Colleges chancellor Brice Harris discussed the state’s new “student-success agenda,” which includes encouraging students to develop a study plan, dropping reliance on a single remedial placement test and giving new students priority for registration over perennial students who aren’t moving toward a credential.

Carnegie: Statway triples math success rate

Success rates in developmental math tripled — in half the time — at community colleges using Statway, the Carnegie Foundation’s new statistics-based program, an analysis has concluded. In an intensive yearlong program, students learn basic math skills and take college statistics for credit.

Statway began at 19 community colleges and two state universities in fall 2011. After one year, 51 percent successfully completed the math sequence with a C or better in college statistics. By contrast, only 15.1 percent of remedial math students at the same colleges earned math credits after two years if they started in conventional remedial courses. The one-year success rate was 5.9 percent. Even after four years, only 23.5 percent passed a college-level math class.

“These are the students that community colleges especially need to serve well,” Carnegie President Anthony S. Bryk said. “A disproportionate number are minority, from families whose primary language is not English, and typically where neither parent has a post-secondary degree.”

Students in Quantway, which stresses quantitative reasoning, also are showing signs of success, said Carnegie officials, but the program is too new to produce outcomes data.

Both Statway and Quantway stress what Carnegie calls “productive struggle” or “productive persistence.”

It’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed or whether a particular approach will work.

In addition, instructors connect facts, ideas, and procedures to help students understand what they’re doing and carefully sequence problems to provide “deliberate practice.”

Both Pathways use face-to-face and online learning.

Instructors make math relevant, said Carnegie officials at a press conference.

By applying math concepts to determine the braking distance of their cars, for instance, rather than simply plugging numbers into an equation and hoping for the right answer, students see the connection with their lives, Carnegie officials said.

“Students tell us they’re learning mathematics that matters to them instead of a series of disconnected math concepts,” said Karon Klipple, who directs the Statway program for Carnegie.

Sixty to 70 percent of new community college students are placed in remedial math, Carnegie estimates. More than 80 percent never qualify for a college-level math course.

Chart pathways to help students succeed

Instead of focusing on outcomes — degrees attained — researchers need to understand students’ pathways through community college, argues Peter Riley Bahr of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education in What We Don’t Know About Community College Students.

“Pathway” includes: “student course-taking behavior; enrollment patterns; course outcomes; choice of program of study; use of advising, tutoring, and other support services; and a variety of other features that ultimately determine long-term student outcomes.”

. . . student pathways are treated as a mysterious blackbox: students enter college with a given set of characteristics and exit college with or without a credential, but the term-by-term decisions and experiences of students between entry and exit remain largely a mystery.

The policy brief is part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education series for the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford.

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.