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2012 May 27 - 12:00 am

POV: Student Success: The National Agenda with a Local Focus

We’ve all been hearing about the importance of education in America. You may have heard that the United States is failing on the global education front. You may have also heard that many students who start a college education don’t finish. What you may not know is everything that San Jacinto College is doing to change these statements in our corner of the world.

Student success is at the heart of everything we do. Every decision we make is centered on the success of our students. I’m often asked, “How is student success defined?” That is the great debate occurring at higher education institutions around the country, especially as state funding recedes and enrollments rise. It is also a conversation that is the focus of many of our elected officials as they consider new parameters around funding.

At the state and national level, there is much talk about student success, graduation rates and the completion agenda. Earlier this year, the American Association of Community Colleges released the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), which will allow community colleges across the nation to more accurately report their successes in the areas of student progress and achievement, implementation of career and technical education programs and transparency in reporting outcomes.

Historically, the success of community college students has been evaluated on many of the same measures as four-year institutions. Those measures don’t account for many of the characteristics of community college students. For example, we have to take into consideration the fact that more than half of the students who attend a community college do so part-time. At San Jacinto College those part-time students represent 68.7 percent of our enrollment. This alone poses a challenge, as these students are balancing work and families with their schoolwork. This can make success and completion a challenge, but San Jacinto College is taking steps to help our students complete what they start.

We have implemented a new mandatory student orientation for all first-time-in-college students, and we have started a mandatory student success course. These two initiatives help students understand the rigors of college, and assist them in becoming acclimated to the college culture. New student orientation introduces students to the campus, faculty and staff, and provides resources for them that they can use throughout the year. The student success course includes such topics as setting goals, commitment, motivation, career planning, educational planning, networking, utilizing campus resources and exam preparation.

These two steps alone are helping students on their path to success, and have caught the attention of the national organization Achieving the Dream, which designated San Jacinto College as an ATD “Leader College” for demonstrating sustained improvement and accomplishments in the area of student success. Throughout the five years San Jacinto College has participated in ATD, we have increased fall-to-spring persistence from 73 percent in 2007 to 78 percent in 2010. This improvement is directly associated with the combination of interventions including the mandatory new student orientation and student success course.

Emphasizing student success can require some difficult decisions. As we faced significant budget cuts last year, rather than automatically increasing tuition or instituting across-the-board budget cuts, we instead looked inside our organization to see where and how we could better utilize our dollars and our people, while maintaining a high level of service to our students. We had to make some significant changes. It wasn’t easy. At the time, I felt it was important to make the necessary changes internally, rather than passing the burden on to our students or taxpayers.

But with our consistent growth in enrollment, we are now at a point where we must increase tuition in order to create funds to meet our student success agenda. We must be able to hire new faculty and staff to meet the growing enrollment. Enrollment has increased by nearly 25 percent since the fall of 2007, which translates to 5,841 more students in the last five years.

For more than a year now, we have had difficult conversations throughout the college that have led us to this point. The tuition increase will go into effect beginning with the fall 2012 semester and will increase tuition by $5 per credit hour for in-district students, or $60 for students taking 12 credit hours. Out-of-district students can expect an increase of about $260 for 12 credit hours.

San Jacinto College remains committed to excellence in teaching and learning. Our faculty and staff are passionate about helping our students succeed. This tuition increase will allow us to maintain initiatives to help students achieve degrees and certificates, and successfully complete the goals that bring them to college.

As we continue to assist our students in achieving their goals, we are moving the needle in graduation and completion rates. We have a lot of work ahead of us, not just here at San Jacinto College, but throughout the state and nation as well. In fact, we have just received some national rankings, and San Jacinto College ranks eighth in the nation for Hispanics receiving associate degrees. Last year, San Jacinto College was ranked 26th in the country on the Community College Week’s Top 100 Degree Producers list. In addition, the Aspen Institute just named San Jacinto College as one of the top 120 community colleges in the country, and a finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College excellence. These rankings are a reflection of the work of our faculty and staff as they continue to reach out to our students to ensure their success.

Community colleges remain the lifeblood of higher education and workforce training and are critical in the success and vitality of our communities. We need to continue to refine the definition of student success, and stress the value of the associate degree. To help in this effort, San Jacinto College is joining forces with the city of Houston, local businesses, and the Center for Houston’s Future in a competition against 57 other major cities for the greatest increase in its two- and four-year college graduation rates. The goal is to raise the graduation rate in Houston by at least 1 percent, which would amount to an additional $4.2 billion in personal revenue for the Houston region.

I’m excited about the direction we are headed. It’s been a challenging process, but every day I see that hard work paying off. To give you a taste of the success of some of our students, Troy Williams, a dual credit student, earned his associate degree before graduating as salutatorian from C.E. King High School. Raised by a single mom, he is now studying international politics at Georgetown University. Joseph Pompa already holds associate and bachelor’s degrees, but returned to San Jacinto College to pursue a career in engineering.

Booker T. Washington once said success is not measured so much by the position one achieves in life but by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the obstacles that our students may face, every day we are helping them to overcome those barriers as they work to achieve their personal and educational goals. They are successes!

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Given local circumstances, how is your college implementing the completion agenda?
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