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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 May 3 - 12:00 am

College Leaders Embrace Obama Education Goals

SEATTLE — President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative may be in ruins, stripped of its promised financial support, but that hasn’t deterred administration officials from pushing the initiative’s goals — or community college leaders from embracing them.

In an unprecedented action, the leaders of six leading community college organizations marked the close of the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention by signing a document aimed at boosting completion rates at their institutions by 50 percent by the year 2020.

In addition to AACC, the signatories included the Association of Community College Trustees, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organization Development and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

The pledge asks community college leaders, faculty and staff “to identify ways to help students understand the added value of degrees and certifications, and to help them progress toward their goals” and urges elected office holders “to create the policy conditions that engage, support and reward community colleges in their work to strengthen student success.”

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter told about 1,200 community college leaders earlier that the AGI’s overarching goals are unchanged, even though the $12 billion the initiative promised when it was first proposed dwindled to $2 billion when education legislation was recently signed into law.

“We are solely, deeply and personally committed to what President Obama has set for us to achieve,” she said. “Everything we are doing in the Department of Education is aimed at achieving this goal.”

“We really think that the 2020 goal is the right goal at the right time in this country.”

She added: “The funding is not as great or as flexible as we would like. We recognize that. We have taken the first step forward, and we have to demonstrate what we can do.”

The document acknowledges two central facts characterizing community colleges today: first, that they are basking in the national spotlight as never before, charged with helping the country emerge from the record-breaking recession; and secondly, opening the doors to college is no longer enough. Today, college success has become the coin of the realm.

But what constitutes success? On that question, consensus is far more elusive than the broader goals endorsed by the six community college organizations.

That point was underscored during a briefing on the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, a joint effort of the AACC, the ACCT and the College Board to devise a set of metrics that will fairly measure community colleges and their myriad missions.

The effort reflects the frustrations of community college leaders with the criticism that has been directed their way for poor graduation and completion rates. Leaders long have griped that such measures fail to account for the full breadth of the work being done at community colleges, or the students, many of them poor or from minority groups, that they teach.

“This is the opportunity for community colleges to tell our real story. . . the thing we’ve been crowing about for so many years,” said R. Eileen Baccus, president emeritus of Northwestern Connecticut Community College, who heads one of three working groups developing the system.

She added that the effort is also something of a pre-emptive strike. The growing interest in community colleges is sure to bring with it calls for more accountability, she said, so it makes sense for colleges to devise a system rather than have one imposed on them. In addition, the metrics would give colleges a way to measure themselves against peer institutions.

Nancy Poppe, campus president of Portland Community College-Southeast Center, serves on a working group focusing on workforce and community development. She said the initial work of the group has illustrated the point that “so much of what we do is not tallied now.”

For example, most colleges don’t grade or track non-credit courses, even though that is a large part of what they do. Nor do they track many licensure pass rates, or adult education courses outside of the GED, or wage increases realized by completion of a community college course of study, or the work of customized training programs for business and industry.

“This doesn’t show up anywhere, but it’s a vitally important part of what we do,” Poppe said.

Perhaps the most difficult task has been left to a working group focusing on student outcomes and persistence. Janice Yoshiwara, education services director for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, is a member of the panel.

She said the working group is charged with identifying a set of measures that applies to all colleges, but is easy to understand and useful to outside stakeholders, such as politicians and the public. The measures should be reasonable in size and scope, yet cover all student, unlike IPEDS, which measures only the academic progress of first-time, full-time college freshmen.

Yoshiwara’s group is looking at many things other than graduation rates, such as success
in college-level courses, credit accumulation, transfer readiness and the success of community college transfers once they reach a four-year college.

“We want to demystify what happens between entrance and exit,” she said.

Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of the AACC for research and student success, said it’s essential that colleges accept the measures that are eventually promulgated.

“We want to make this a tool that colleges will want to participate in,” he said.

He stressed that while the measures are intended to be national in scope, they will not be a federal system — a term that implies oversight akin to No Child Left Behind, complete with standardized tests and punitive measures. In fact, it’s hoped that by devising their own system, federal oversight will be rendered unnecessary, he said.

The effort is being underwritten by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education.

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