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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 September 6 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Follow the Leader

         C O V E R   S T O R Y         

Follow The Leader

Achieving the Dream Designates Exemplary Colleges

By Paul Bradley

Like an aging diva or a football hero whose glory days have long since passed, community colleges have not always liked what they see when they take a long, hard look into the mirror.

Two-year colleges can rightfully boast about their open-enrollment policies, which have granted access to higher education to millions of low-income and minority students whose path to the middle class would otherwise be blocked.

But community colleges also know mere access to college is no longer enough. Open access defines community colleges, but these days so do poor graduation and retention rates. College leaders realize that while legions of students go in, relatively few come out, many losing their way amid the pressures of family and work life or becoming mired in remedial classes.

Saddled with poor graduation rates and heeding President Obama’s call to contribute to his goal of producing 5 million more college graduates within a decade, growing numbers of colleges are no longer satisfied with filling seats in classrooms. Instead, they are taking extraordinary steps, based on hard and sometimes unflattering data, to assure that students emerge from college with a credential that leads to a job or a pathway to a four-year degree.

Eight of those colleges recently were named “leader colleges” by “Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count,” which since 2004 has been championing a “culture of evidence” on community college campuses. Under the ATD approach, data collection and analysis drive efforts to identify problems preventing students from succeeding and in developing programs to help them stay in school and earn a degree. Anecdotal evidence is no longer acceptable.

The Achieving the Dream network now includes 130 community colleges in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and 29 of those have been designated as leader colleges. ATD is supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education, which has invested more than $60 million, and also has attracted support from 18 other funders, bringing the total investment to more than $100 million. ATD recently attracted a $16.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to scale up effective practices in developmental education.

Colleges Large and Small

The leader colleges are large and small, rural and urban, single-campus and multi-campus, and each is working to address issues peculiar to their enrollment, their communities and their individual needs.

“I think that tells you that Achieving the Dream can work at all kinds of colleges,” said Maggie Shelton, ATD’s senior program director. “Using data to inform decisions can work anywhere.”

“The colleges share a willingness to take a hard look at themselves and have some difficult conversations. They are willing to take some risks.”

Being designated a “leader college” comes with no monetary award, but there is a distinct payoff, according to Tomas Ybarra, vice president of instruction
and student services at Yakima Valley Community College, one of the eight new leader colleges.

“It does have a real meaning,” he said. “The real payoff is that this designation gives us the leverage to realize some real changes in the culture of our campus. Faculty members who once considered our data with suspicion now are seeking the data out.”

To be designated as a leader college, the eight colleges had to demonstrate their commitment to ATD principles: committed leadership, use of evidence to improve programs and services, broad student engagement and systemic institutional improvement. Each college had to show three years of sustained improvement in areas such as course completion, completion of college-level math or English courses, retention rates and advancement from remedial education to credit-bearing courses.

Yakima Valley’s efforts, funded with $450,000 in grants from the College Spark Foundation, center on creation of an Office of Institutional Effectiveness to collect and analyze data. Before the office was created, the data was scattered across various campus offices, making it inconsistent and unreliable, Ybarra said. The college created an OIE website with static and dynamic reporting tools and developed protocols for data sharing agreements and data requests.

The result has been more than
400 requests for data from individual departments, grants, annual performance reports, strategic planning.

The data collection also helped Yakima Valley quantify what college officials knew anecdotally: that the achievement gaps between white students and Hispanic students were wide and persistent.

We knew there was an achievement gap between white students and students of color, but we didn’t have the hard data,” Ybarra said. The hard data showed that while the graduation rates for white students was 30 percent, for Hispanics it was 16 percent, “a significant difference”

It was an important finding for a college that has seen large increases in its Hispanic enrollment over the past several years. Armed with the data, the college designed interventions to help Hispanic students boost their math and English skills.

The results are promising. The most recent fall-to-fall retention rate for Hispanic students is 59 percent, an 8 percent boost over the year before. Overall completion rates in developmental courses are up, and Hispanic students achieve at the same rates in those courses as white students. In addition, Hispanic students now outperform white students in college-level English classes.

The ATD activities have had another, unexpected payoff. Data has been critical to the college as it faces rising enrollments and shrinking budgets.

“We’ve found ourselves needing to use the data in ways we had not anticipated,” he said. “It really has helped us make more intelligent decisions at the budget table.”

“But we don’t have all the answers,” he added. “We have a lot of work to do. But I think we are beginning to ask the right questions.”

At Northampton Community College, another of the ATD’s leader colleges, the primary question that needed to be answered was how to boost math scores that were keeping too many students stuck in remedial classes.

“We chose that early on,” said Elizabeth Bugaighis, dean of education and academic success. “A lot of colleges did. It’s a widespread problem.”

At Northampton, research showed that students were struggling in particular to complete the second of a sequence of three developmental math courses.

“There’s been a concerted push around that course,” Bugaighis said.

She explained that instructors were using different approaches to teaching the course; some relied heavily on classroom lectures, others used a computer-based approached; still others built instruction around a classroom project.

Drilling Into Data

Drilling into the data, Bugaighis said, “We found out that students did best with the project-based approach, so the other courses were phased out.” Now, all instructors teaching the class use the project-based approach.

Jim Benner, director of the NCC Center for Teaching and Learning, said, “Project-based learning is premised on the idea that students learn best when most active.

“An instructor creates problems or projects around major concepts/skills in the course, establishes groups and the means for the groups to work together, and then allows students to discover the knowledge or abilities expected in the course.

“So, it’s about student engagement and discovery, relying on our natural curiosity, to learn whatever the course is supposed to be about. The instructor lectures less, and the students work more, and learn more.”

The college’s ATD-related work is starting to pay dividends, Bugaighis said.

The course completion for that middle elementary algebra course has increased by 7 percent over three years.

In addition, the college has improved its term-to-term retention rate to 73 percent, a 5 percent increase over three years.

ATD President William E. Trueheart said he hopes other colleges will follow the lead of the leader colleges.

“We expect these colleges to serve as mentors within the Achieving the Dream community of learners, as well as advocates for the principles of Achieving the Dream,” he said.

“Creating and implementing student success initiatives that have an enduring impact takes time and patience.

It’s critical that we get it right and that we learn from institutions that have demonstrated success in key areas and have been able to maintain progress over time.”

CCW wants  to hear from you!

Q: Does fear or mistrust of data continue to be a problem in identifying student success barriers at community colleges?

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