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2015 October 8 - 05:38 pm

The Completion Clock Is Ticking

Innovation and Heavy Lifting Must Continue as 2020 Deadline Nears

Ten years. That was the time limit community college were given to produce 50 percent more students with degrees and certificates, while simultaneously increasing access and quality. This goal was set by community college leaders and associations, including the Center for Community College Student Engagement (the Center), in support of the national completion agenda set forth by President Obama. More recently, states have adopted their own goals. Texas, for example, just adopted a 60 X 30 goal for 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the state to hold a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030.

Time has been ticking away, and we are now halfway to 2020. So, how are we doing? A recent report, Community College Completion, by the American Association of Community Colleges, suggests that “community colleges will reach approximately 90 percent of their projected goal by 2020 and meet it by 2021.”

This is encouraging news, but as we consider the future, it’s important to reflect on the heavy lifting colleges have done in the recent past to help more students succeed — the innovative practices that have been put in place; the practices that have been halted to ensure that other practices might grow and reach more students; and the practices that were not initially, but are now mandatory, for all students. Colleges have also been intentional in reviewing data to make informed decisions about which practices work the best for the most students.

We know more than we did five years ago, and a great deal of recent research has shown us that structure is beneficial to community college students. To provide this structure, some colleges have been working on implementing guided student pathways, and those that are doing this well, such as Kennedy-King College in Chicago, are being recognized for their work. As colleges consider the mile marker of the year 2020, the innovation can’t stop and neither can the heavy lifting.

Some in the field may be wondering, “Why the rush?” “Why now?” Here’s why.

IN THE BEGINNING: I never came intending to drop out.

Students come with high aspirations, but for some, things change very quickly — as quickly as the first term. Since 2008, the Center has hosted institutes for college leadership teams. As part of the advance homework that teams are asked to prepare, they must provide the percentage of first-time-in-college students (of those with a goal of completion of a degree or certificate or of transfer) earning no credits in their first term.

Some colleges have never investigated this data point before, and they are often surprised by what they discover. At some institutions, as many at 22 percent — almost 1 student in 4 — earned zero credits in their first term. When the data were disaggregated by enrollment status, the percentage climbed to as high as 61 percent for part-timers. It’s disheartening to know that these students have walked through the doors of our colleges and have nothing to show for their efforts.

The time could not be better to reevaluate the entering student experience. To ensure these students are successful, orientation is critical. Additionally, the student success course —during which time management, note-taking, study, and testtaking skills are taught — is essential if we are to ensure that students stay enrolled and ultimately complete.

ADVISING: I know it’s important, but it’s not important for me.

Strong and inescapable support is also crucial in ensuring that students meet their goals. Ninety-two percent of Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) respondents indicate that academic advising and planning is important to them. Yet 32 percent of students say they rarely or never use academic advising and planning services. In a recent focus group, a student noted that “I don’t go the counselor, I go talk to my friends. The counselor just gives me the wrong information.”

Reconsidering the role of advising is critical, and particularly with first-generation students, academically-underprepared students, non-traditional age students, and students that just need extra support entering community college doors. As students try to navigate their way to degree completion or transfer, timely and accurate information is essential. Students tell us advising is important, but if they don’t use it, we must understand why and redesign the process.

IT’S COMPLICATED: I aim high, but when it goes bad I blame myself The Center recently reviewed CCSSE data from 2004-14 and took notice of students who marked “certificate program” or “associate degree” as a primary or secondary goal for attending college. Across the decade, the percentage of respondents indicating obtaining an associate degree as a goal rose from 77 percent to 84 percent, and the percentage indicating certificate rose from 45 percent to 54 percent.

This is good news!

But the reality is that while a greater proportion of students now aspire to attain a certificate or degree, less than half will have completed a certificate or degree, transferred, or still be enrolled six years after starting college.

Aspirations are high, yet dreams are not being realized. The Center has conducted more than 300 focus groups and one thing is certain: students take full responsibility for their lack of accomplishments. As colleges consider policies and practices to help students succeed, it’s key that leaders recognize the complexity here–and ensure that students have a strong start and are not left to flounder when things aren’t going well.

Time is ticking. The year 2020 will be here soon, and we must continue to work to ensure that students persist and complete. To reach the goal that was set forth in 2010, it’s important to understand the students we serve, the complexities they bring with them, and that the clock is ticking the loudest for them.

Evelyn Waiwaiole is the Director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE). Program in Higher Education Leadership/College of Education, The University of Texas at Austin.

This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to: mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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