Ten years in pursuit of the dream

Ten years after the Lumina Foundation launched Achieving the Dream, MDRC reports on progress toward the goal of increasing community college students’ odds of success.

Student outcomes haven’t improved much, except for a modest increase in students completing gatekeeper English courses, the report concluded. However, three unnamed colleges “stood out for gains on multiple indicators of student success.”

Each college focused on specific student subgroups, and each coordinated multiple reform efforts around their chosen subgroup.

In later years, after gaining experience with the initial subgroups, each college expanded the reach of new practices to include larger groups of students or faculty. This focus was supported by targeted professional development for faculty and staff involved in the work.

One college also used its reaccreditation process to help coordinate its reform efforts toward achieving a common set of goals.

Achieving the Dream has expanded to nearly 200 community colleges in 10 years. The initiative aims to help community colleges collect and analyze data to identify barriers to success and develop intervention strategies.

‘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.”

Study: Adjuncts are just as effective

Adjuncts don’t hurt — or help — student success at community colleges, concludes a preliminary study. Most research shows adjuncts aren’t as effective, notes Inside Higher Ed. But a study released earlier in the fall found students may learn more from adjuncts, “at least at research universities.”

Hongwei Yu, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Office of Community College Research and Leadership, was lead author of The Effect of Part-time Faculty on Students’ Degree and/or Certificate Completion in Two-Year Community Colleges. 

The authors attribute their findings regarding adjuncts and student success to the possibility that community colleges “hire a significant percentage of part-time faculty who come directly from professional fields and  have practical experiences, skills, and knowledge [...] which may help students achieve degree or certificate completion in two-year community colleges. In addition, part-time faculty may provide students connections to workplace or a community.”

Researchers found lower completion rates at large community colleges (10,000 or more students) and at rural colleges. High school grades also correlated with completion rates.

More than two-thirds of community college faculty are adjuncts teaching part-time for low wages, no benefits and no job security.

Some adjuncts are trying to organize for better treatment, but there’s a large pool of people with advanced degrees and limited job prospects.

The Adjunct Question is the topic for the week at National Journal.

How colleges use data mining and analytics

Colleges are using data mining and analytics to help students succeed, reports CollegeStats.org

How Can Data Mining & Analytics Enhance Education?

Community colleges need new leaders

More than 40 percent of community college presidents are expected to retire in the next five years. Community colleges need to develop, recruit and hire a new generation of leaders, according to Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success.

The Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream (ATD) analyzed the qualities of presidents who lead Aspen Prize winning community colleges and ATD leader colleges:  Effective leaders “create organizational structures, processes and policies aligned—explicitly and aggressively—with student success goals.”

Community colleges will be expected to “produce more degrees of a higher quality at a lower per-student cost to an increasingly diverse population,” the report states.

“We’re facing an urgent leadership challenge that also offers unprecedented opportunity,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Critical skills of effective leaders display:

* A persistent drive to ensure student success.
* A willingness to take significant risks to advance student success.
* The ability to create lasting change within the college . . by building urgency through the use of data and the bully pulpit, creating strong plans with sustainable strategies, collaborating with and listening to faculty and support staff, and implementing strategies for change that hold faculty and staff accountable for results.
* A strong, broad, strategic vision for the college and its students. It is reflected in its partnerships with K-12 districts, universities and nonprofit organizations.
* A commitment to raise and allocate resources in ways aligned to student success. The best presidents are usually entrepreneurial and consistently strategic in allocating resources.

The president “must first and foremost be an advocate for the student and create a culture where the student is the centerpiece of the institution,” said Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and co-chair of AACC’s 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges.

From April 2012 to April 2013,  more than 140 two-year college presidencies have been filled by first-time CEOs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).  New community college presidents face many challenges,  AACC President Walter Bumphus  tells Community College Times.

CC students feel ‘on their own’ online

Community colleges are worried about staying relevant “if massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning begin to offer students a high-quality, convenient, and low-cost pathway to a college degree,” writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia, in CCRC Currents.

So far, however, community college students find it difficult to learn online, according to CCRC studies.

We found that in the majority of online courses, students had little meaningful interaction with their instructors. While the courses frequently required interaction with peers in online discussion boards or chat rooms, most students did not value this peer-to-peer interaction and said it felt both artificial and of little educational value.

Students told us that if they expected to struggle in a subject or really “wanted to learn something,” they preferred a face-to-face classroom where they had more contact with the professor. In online courses, they reported, they were more or less on their own.

Online instructors expected students to be independent learners “able to manage their time, take initiative, and generate their own
approach to mastering course material.”

In What We Know About Online Course Outcomes, the CCRC summarizes its research on community college students’ success in all-online courses, looks at how online courses can be improved and discusses  how online instructors “might create a more robust presence in their courses in order to improve student engagement and retention.”

AACC names 25 finalists for excellence awards

Twenty-five community colleges have been named finalists for the Awards of Excellence sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges. Awards will be given in five categories: Emerging Leadership, Student Success, Exemplary CEO or Board, Advancing Diversity and Outstanding College/Corporate Partnership.

The finalists and winners will be honored April 23 during the closing brunch of the 2013 AACC Convention in San Francisco.

California: Perform or pay

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the Student Success Act, which cuts off fee waivers for students who fall below a C average for two semesters in a row and requires colleges to provide orientation, assessment, placement, counseling and education planning help to new students. At least two-thirds of students qualify for fee waivers. Full tuition has risen to $46 per unit, still below the national average. The bill was amended to remove a provision cutting off waivers for students who’ve already earned 110 credits.

In addition, community colleges will report the academic performance of students with breakdowns by race and socioeconomic status.

It’s hoped students will move more quickly to achieve their goals, freeing up spaces in a system that now places nearly half a million students on wait lists for the classes they need.

In addition, Brown signed bills expanding digital access to free college textbooks.

Brice Harris, who leads the Los Rios Community College District near Sacramento, was named the new chancellor of California Community Colleges.

Sinclair tries ATD, DEI and CBD

Improving student success at Dayton’s Sinclair Community College began in 2005, when the college began to work with Achieving the Dream (ATD), writes Kathleen Cleary, associate provost for student success, on Accelerating Achievement. But that was just the first step.

. . . we approached improving student success, particularly for underserved populations, as a way of life at the college, rather than a program that would have a beginning and ending. With the Developmental Education Initiative (DEI), we . . . began to make bolder, more aggressive changes in our pedagogy, structures, and curriculum.

When we learned that we were granted funding for Completion by Design (CBD), we took a different approach and made the conscious decision to be high profile, even creating a statewide Completion by Design office on campus.

Achieving the Dream focused Sinclair on “use of data, policy changes, and a commitment to enhancing teaching and learning,” Cleary writes.

Faculty began tracking student success in gatekeeper courses in developmental and college-level English, reading, and math. When faculty saw their success rates, they began to experiment with new ways of teaching and structuring courses. Policy changes such as the no late registration policy were watershed moments for the college as we made a cultural shift from an access-centric institution to an access and success focus. Another hallmark of our ATD work was the creation of the Center for Teaching and Learning, which has provided professional development on topics including student engagement, diversity in the classroom, and increasing student success and completion.

DEI initiatives such as math modules, accelerated English and early support in high school helped accelerate students’ progress through developmental education.

With Completion by Design, Sinclair and other Ohio community colleges hope to “create a seamless pathway” to graduation for students.

California dreaming

California’s plan to focus community colleges on student success is “pure behaviorist claptrap based on fictional students being taught in fictional ways by fictional teachers,” writes David Clemens in California Dreamin’ on the National Association of Scholars blog.

California’s system — 2 1/2 million students at 112 community colleges — needs retooling, writes Clemens, an English professor at Monterey Peninsula College. Thanks to the taxpayers, students pay only $36 per credit hour, soon to rise to $46. Many receive fee waivers. Some are there to take lower-division courses before transferring, learn trades or take remedial courses, but colleges have been unable to resist the temptation to “turn everything into college and rake in the dough,” he writes.

Tiny tot swim club members and geriatric flamenco dancers: college students!  Fourth grade level readers and doodad ceramicists: college students!  Ellipticals, Yoga, Weaving Practicum, Volleyball Practicum, fitness, fitness, fitness: count `em all and hear that cash register ring!  Cheap golf, cheap tennis, cheap swimming pool, cheap fitness center, cheap kilns and studios, all subsidized by taxpayers.  And with dozens of financial aid options available under a blizzard of acronyms, often these “students” pay nothing at all.  Too many are not students at all either, but attend classes only to collect edu-welfare, to prevent deportation, or to maintain athletic eligibility.

. . . A nearby community college offers 31 courses in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Astronomy combined.  The same college offers 13 flavors of remedial English and over 200 courses in Art, PE, Physical Fitness, and Theatre Arts, most of them repeatable. Cha-ching.

Only 25% of community college students ever earn a degree, complains Gov. Jerry Brown. This is “mission failure,” responds Clemens. “Many students aren’t there for college.” 

California taxpayers aren’t willing to fund that model any more. The new plan caps enrollment and closes “enclaves of dubious academic merit.” In addition, the task force called for standardizing course names and numbers, descriptions, outcomes, placement and assessment.

But it’s all based on a fantasy, writes Clemens.

 “There’s a story that each member of this Task Force wants to be true . . .” and a gauzy fantasy unfolds.  Imaginary students are college-ready upon high school graduation and eager to learn (because we so want it to be true!); students have a major and an academic plan after one semester and are upper-division-ready after two years of community college (hurry, please!); students are job-ready upon college graduation (it has to be!); and remediation is trimmed and/or accelerated (the 33-year-old student who struggles to read Harry Potter will be soaking up Joyce and Heidigger in a matter of weeks).

All this will be done with software — placement software, instructional software, assessment software — the task force dreams.

The plan maintains “the poisonous fiction that college is for everyone,” Clemens writes.

In grand behaviorist fashion, the recommendations obsess over inputs and outcomes, testing, benchmarks, loss points, and scorecards, virtually ignoring the greatest influence on student learning: the student.

Will a “data-driven culture of evidence” produce a new kind of student? “Dream on,” writes Clemens.