This way up


STEPHANIE RABELLO, REGISTERED NURSE | Working her way from practical nurse to registered nurse to bachelor-degree nurse. Preston Mack for The Wall Street Journal

There’s more than one route to the middle class, writes Tamar Jacoby in This Way Up in the Wall Street Journal. “Americans have a host of postsecondary options other than a four-year degree—associate degrees, occupational certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships.”

What they need are “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

In Orlando, Fla., there are many paths to the nursing profession, she writes.

The University of Central Florida trains only bachelor-degree nurses. You need an outstanding high-school record, there’s a long waiting list, and tuition is $14,000 for in-state students—and more than three times that if you’re not from Florida. Two well-equipped, award-winning community colleges—Seminole State and Valencia —offer associate-degree RN programs, where tuition is $7,500. Then there is Orlando Tech, a county-run career center, located in an old building in an industrial area near downtown, which trains licensed practical nurses for about $5,000.

RNs average $65,000 year, while LPNs start below $40,000. But there are ways to move up.

The streamlined route starts in high school: a “dual enrollment” magnet program that allows focused, able students to earn college credit and professional certifications, including as a nursing assistant. Participants who enroll within two years at Seminole or Valencia get advanced placement credit, saving as much as $1,250. And those who are really in a hurry can matriculate simultaneously at UCF, earning “concurrent” credit for advanced courses taken at community-college prices, then graduate in just three years with a UCF bachelor’s degree.

For many, it’s a long journey.  Stephanie Rabello, 41, went from high school to a 10-month LPN program at a local career center. After nearly 20 years as a practical nurse, she enrolled in a yearlong LPN-to-RN “bridge” program at Seminole State. “Online classes and convenient clinical rotations” let her continue working while she studied, writes Jacoby. Now an RN, Rabello hopes to earn a bachelor’s in nursing at UCF.

Sherry Harris, 33, who followed a similar path from LPN to RN, calls it “step-by-step” professional training—the “working-class way in.” Ms. Harris is now taking the next step: an RN-to-BSN program for a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, also looks at welding — which can pay as much as $100,000 a year — and franchise management.

Learning how to learn digitally

Valencia College (Florida) is teaching digital learning. The Digital Learning Strategies lab “allows students to keep their phones and iPads handy while learning how to use them to advance in classes,” reports Community College Daily.

We give them the tools, then we get out of their way,” said Valencia professor Terry Rafter-Carles.

Students learn to create blogs, save and share documents on the cloud and keep track of their notes using Evernote. They also learned to collaborate outside of class using free online video meeting spaces, capture their video meetings using Screencast, publish videos on YouTube and more. All the technologies are free.

“If we give them an exciting and innovative curriculum, they’ll rise to the challenge,” said James May, who teaches English as a second language.

Making the transfer dream a reality

Eighty percent of community college students say they plan to transfer and earn a four-year degree, but most never make the leap, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Only 15 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Now the “push is on to propel students past community college.”

Glenda Sorto knew she wanted to go to college, but as she started her senior year of high school, that’s about all she knew. “I’m the first one in the family to go to college, so pretty much it was all me to figure it out,” says the Salvadoran immigrant, who arrived in Virginia as a fifth-grader.

Four years after finishing high school, she had her bachelor’s degree in hand – largely because counselors from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) helped her stay on track to transfer all her credits to a nearby state university after earning her associate degree.

Sorto was an early participants in NOVA’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a partnership of local K-12 school districts, NOVA’s six campuses, and George Mason University, a selective campus in Fairfax, Virginia.  The program appears to be helping students — many of them from low-income minority families — stay in school, transfer their credits and complete a degree. 

“It’s a hugely important issue,” says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, a policy group in Washington. “We can’t reach either the equity imperatives or the degree-production imperatives if we don’t solve the transfer issue.”

Only 40 percent of would-be four-year graduates will transfer, according to a City University of New York study. Whether they go on to earn a degree depends, in part, on whether they can transfer all their credits and apply them to their majors. 

“The transfer process has a lot of leaks in it,” because decisions about credits are typically made at the department level of each university, says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. This often-inefficient system “is just nuts,” she says.

About two-thirds of states have “articulation” agreements that are supposed to clarify which credits will be honored by state universities. But the agreements aren’t always honored, sats Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia. 

More than 20 states – including Florida, California, and Virginia – guarantee associate-degree graduates a seat in state universities with status as third-year students. 

Some community colleges have partnered with nearby state universities to help students transfer with their credits. For example, DirectConnect to UCF has helped 28,000 students transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Nearly 17,000 of them have come from Valencia College. Associate-degree graduates are guaranteed admission. UCF set up space on Valencia’s West and Osceola campuses where students can “meet with advisers, fill out transfer paperwork, and in some cases even earn a bachelor’s degree on-site.”

In response to the rise in student mobility, many states are making it easier for students to transfer college credits, reports the Education Commission of the States. Improving transfer policies is especially critical for low-income and non-traditional students, who typically start at a community college.

Latinos narrow graduation gap

The Latino college completion gap is narrowing for full-time students, reports Excelencia in Education in a new report. The gap fell from 14 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2014: 41 percent of Latinos graduate in 150 percent of the normal time compared to 50 percent of all first-time, full-time college students.

However, almost half of Latino college students are enrolled part-time. Their completion rates remain very low.

Miami Dade College, South Texas College, El Paso Community College, East Los Angeles College and Florida International College enroll the most Latino students. “Four of the top five are predominantly community colleges,” said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president of policy at Excelencia.

Miami Dade, El Paso and South Texas also rank in the top five for awarding associate degrees to Latinos, along with Valencia College and University of Phoenix Online. “We are seeing the closure in the achievement gaps in some states, but not all,” said Santiago.

ASSOCIATE DEGREES: Top 5 Institutions Awarding to Hispanics, 2011-12

Rank Institution State Sector Grand Total Hispanic Total % Hispanic
1 Miami Dade College FL 4yr Public 11,959 7,958 67
2 El Paso Community College TX 2yr Public 3,790 3,244 86
3 University of Phoenix – Online 4yr Private For-Profit 39,341 2,424 6
4 South Texas College TX 4yr Public 2,292 2,138 93
5 Valencia College FL 4yr Public 7,974 2,129 27

California, which has the highest numbers of Latino students, lags in graduating them: Only 15 percent of the state’s Latino students completed a degree or certificate in 2010-11.  “Why does California, the state with the largest Latino population in the nation, not have a single college break into the top five nationally for awarding degrees to Latinos?” asked Santiago.

Florida does much better in enrolling — and graduating — Latinos.

Latinos make up 22 percent of K-12 students and 17 percent of the population, reports Excelencia.  The median age for Latinos is 27, compared to 42 for non-Hispanic whites.

Twenty percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher compared to 36 percent of all adults.

‘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.”

Community colleges go international

The community college mission has international appeal, reports Community College Times.

Valencia College (Florida) is helping Saudi Arabia’s all-female Princess Noura University develop a new women’s community college. The award-winning college also is partnering with institutions in the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands.

Valencia also has worked with Puerto Rico’s Ana G. Mendez University on a police training program.

Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania) created an articulation agreement  with a university in South Korea. Montgomery County students will be able to study abroad — and even earn a bachelor’s degree.

In Wisconsin, Gateway Technical College is working with Ecole Supérieure de Technologie in Oujda, Morocco, to promote entrepreneurial principles.

Kansas’ Johnson County Community College has faculty and student exchange programs with institutions in Russia, China, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Seminole State College of Florida . . . signed a five-year agreement with Basic Health Care College of Fredericia-Vejle-Horsens in Denmark. Faculty and students will get a better idea of how healthcare works in other countries.

Elgin Community College (Illinois) celebrated International Week with shows, concerts, dancing, forums and a parade, reports the Courier News.
Greek belly dancer DimitrMouzakis Chicago performs ElgCommunity College Wednesday as part school's celebrati'International Week.' | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media
College President David Sam, a native of Ghana, donned a colorful African robe and led more than 20 foreign students in a fashion parade.

“At any one time, we have about 90 international students here,” said Lauren Nehlsen, manager of ECC’s international student services. “By 2018, we hope to have about 200 on campus.”

ECC also sends students abroad: Some go to Cuernevaca, Mexico to study the Spanish language and Mexican culture. Others study Chinese languages and culture and international business at schools in China.

Carlos Parra came to ECC on a student visa to study computer science. He lives with a volunteer host family through a program called International Student Home Stay.

The festivities included a belly dance performance by Dimitra Mouzakis of Chicago.

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.

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.

Valencia finds ways to raise completion rates

Community colleges are seeking new strategies to raise completion rates, reports Community College Times. Valencia College in Florida, winner of this year’s Aspen Prize for excellence, is a leader in getting high-risk students to a better future.

Growing up in a trailer park in Florida with a father in prison and a mother who was a high school dropout, Dawn Ginnetti never considered going to college. In fact, she barely made it through high school.

Today, after a few setbacks along the way, Ginnetti, 36, is an honor student at the elite Smith College in Massachusetts. She was one of just 30 students admitted to Smith, on a full scholarship, through the Ada Comstock Scholars program for nontraditional students. She’s majoring in American studies and plans to go for a doctorate.

Ginnetti’s career goal: to teach in a community college, because it was at Valencia College in Florida where her life turned around.

“Choosing to enroll in Valencia College was the best decision I ever made, hands down,” Ginnetti said. All the personal attention, tutoring sessions, peer mentoring and other resources there “were hugely helpful for me,” she said.

The college uses a five-stage Life Map to help students make decisions about their college career. Students in remedial classes are required to take a success course. In addition, Valencia uses online tools to identify students with enough credits to earn a degree or those who need to complete certain courses. Students “always know where they stand,” Joyce Romano, vice president for student affairs, told  Community College Times. When students are ready to move on, no-credit “skillshops,” help them prepare to transition to the workforce or to a four-year institution.

“I went from thinking I wasn’t college material to being on the dean’s list at Smith,” said Ginnetti. Valencia “changed my life.”

Aspen names 120 top community colleges

The Aspen Institute has named 120 community colleges in 31 states that are in the running for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The finalists were evaluated  on the basis of student persistence, completion and transfer rates, consistent improvement in outcomes over time and equity in outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Valencia College in Florida won the 2012 prize.