Diving For Data
Aspen Prize Finalists Use Deep Data To Improve Outcomes
At about the same time that Chicago’s Kennedy-King College was basking in the glow of being named one of the country’s top community colleges, a 19-year old man was killed and two other people were wounded in a shooting in the Englewood neighborhood that’s home to the college.
It was the latest in a deadly spate of killings in the South Side Chicago neighborhood, which consistently ranks as one of the city’s most dangerous places, afflicted by years of violence, poverty and gangs.
So it was a welcome respite when college President Arshele Stevens learned that the college had been named one of ten finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s premiere recognition for achievement and performance among America’s community colleges. Better than 60 percent of the college’s students live in Englewood.
“In a neighborhood like Englewood, this is quite a distinction,” Stephens said. “It’s been very uplifting. We have faculty who have been working here for a long time, and they feel like the fruits of their labor are paying off.”
Kennedy-King now enters the final stage of the competition for the $1 million prize fund that will be awarded in March 2015 to the winner and up to four finalistswith-distinction.
Aspen cited Kennedy-King for improving its graduation/transfer rates from 34 percent in 2007 to 51 percent in 2011 and the creation of clear, structured pathways for students. It praised the college for its data-driven efforts to reform developmental education programs; 98 percent of students entering the college are unprepared for college.
In fact, the heavy use of deep data is a centerpiece of City Colleges of Chicago Reinvention initiative, a comprehensive reform effort launched by Chancellor Cheryl Hyman in 2010 (See CCWeek, July 22, 2013).
Since the launch of Reinvention at Kennedy-King College, its graduation rate has more than tripled, increasing from 8 percent to 26 percent in 2013. The total number of degrees and certificates awarded increased by more than 75 percent to 1,164 in 2013.
Stephens concedes that those numbers reflect a promising upward trend but must improve.
“This recognition is about progress over time,” she said. “We have more work to do.”
To continue its progress, the college will continue to leverage data on student achievement and success. Staffers at the college analyze and discuss data on a regular basis. They crunch the numbers and talk about them almost every day.
“We talk about data a lot,” she said. “I meet with my core team twice a week and we go over our scorecard. You have to track your progress on a regular basis. The data is very meaningful, but the conversations around it are just as important.”
Data guide decisions large and small at the college. For example, a hard look at the numbers led to a change in how the college used tutors, who had been embedded in classrooms throughout the college. But an analysis showed that students were not using the tutors. So the program was tweaked. Tutors are now available before and after class.
“When we found it wasn’t working, we changed it,” Stephens said. “The data allowed us to look at what we were doing well, and what we weren’t doing well.”
Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, said in a press release that the work of Kennedy-King and others demonstrates that positive outcomes are within reach for traditionally underserved ethnic and income groups.
“After three years of administering this prize, we’ve learned that even the colleges facing the biggest challenges are able to dramatically and continuously improve student education,” he said.
“Ultimately, these community colleges prove that the goals of open access and student success can be attained within the same educational setting.”
Indeed, Kennedy-King was not the only urban college to unexpectedly be named a finalist for the Aspen Prize. Eugenio María de Hostos Community College of The City University of New York was also named one of the ten finalists.
Located in the South Bronx, in the country’s poorest congressional district, the college serves a predominantly Hispanic and immigrant population. David Gómez, the college’s interim president and a 40-year community college educator, said the honor was overdue.
“Our work has been underappreciated,” he said. “The stories of our students can get lost in all the noise. But an honor like this can only help us tell our story.”
Aspen praised Hostos for building strong systems for student support, an acknowledgement that community college students often must juggle their education with heavy family and work obligations.
“Hostos has recognized that students succeed or fail for reasons that have nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom,” Gómez, said. “A majority of our students who drop out are actually in good academic standing. But the challenges our students face make it difficult for them to persist.”
To meet the needs of large numbers of minority and immigrant students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, Hostos established support programs including the Student Success Coaching Unit, the Single Stop USA Resource Center and the Bridge Tuition Support Assistance (BTSA) — a needsbased emergency scholarship program. The initiatives are credited with helping Hostos improve retention and double graduation rates for some of the least academically prepared students in the nation.
Said Wyner: “Hostos Community College provides vital access to higher education to a diverse group of students who have been traditionally excluded from higher education. Equally remarkable are the improved student outcomes.
Students are successfully learning, completing their programs, earning certificates and getting good jobs at higher rates because this college is advising them each step of the way and addressing factors that can be barriers to student success.”
A third college in the top ten faced a challenge of a different sort. Brazosport College is located in Lake Jackson, Texas, about 50 miles south of Houston in an area in the midst of an oil-fueled economic boom. But three years ago, the college was on the legislative chopping block, targeted for closure (http://ccweek.com/article- 2268-cover-story:-zeroed-out.html) as the state tried to close a $15 billion budget gap.
With support from local lawmakers, Brazosport survived and since has prospered. When it was named a finalist for the Aspen Prize earlier this month, it marked the second straight time it had earned that recognition. Today, the college is supplying many of the highly-paid petrochemical workers that are in heavy demand along the Gulf Coast.
The college was praised for an exceptionally high student retention rate from first to second year (84 percent); consistent improvements in the number of students who earn certificates, degrees and/or transfer to four-year colleges; strong relationships with industry, especially the petrochemical industry; and a model, mandatory first-semester program to teach all under-prepared students the core skills they need to succeed in college.
College President Millicent Valek said the three-credit student success course has been pivotal to the college’s success.
“It’s on-the-job training on how to be a college student,” she said. “Our data shows that students who compete the course are much more likely to succeed. It started as an elective. But after looking at the data, we made it mandatory.”
“This is a testament that all of the initiatives we have in place to assist students in achieving their educational goals are making a difference.”
While this is the second time Brazosport has been a finalist, Valek said she won’t be too disappointed if it does not take away the top prize. Neither should any of the other colleges which don’t win or are not named a finalist, she said.
“Making it to the top ten is winning,” she said. “It was not an easy road to get here. All of the finalists are doing work that deserves praise.”
AT A GLANCE
CCC KENNEDY-KING COLLEGE Chicago, Ill.
89% African American
63% Female, 37% Male
56% Full-Time, 44% Part-Time
77% Receive Pell Grants
CUNY HOSTOS COMMUNITY COLLEGE Bronx, N.Y.
66% Female, 34% Male
57% Full-Time, 43% Full-Time
87% Receive Pell Grants
BRAZOSPORT COLLEGE Lake Jackson, Texas
52 Percent Male, 48 Percent Female
77% Part-Time, 23% Full-Time
36% Receive Pell Grants
SOURCE: NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS