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Colleges get creative to meet persistent challenges

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Students raise red flags to ask for help with math instruction at Valencia College in Florida.

Photo: Valencia College

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

When the going gets tough, the tough get…innovative. That’s the approach some forward-thinking community college leaders are taking as their institutions set about the task of restocking the nation’s workforce in the face of historic enrollments and severe, if seemingly unending, budget cuts.

For a second straight year, President Barack Obama has challenged the nation’s community colleges to play a central role in increasing the number of college graduates, emphasizing the need to prepare American workers for jobs in the global economy. As part of his FY 2013 budget, Obama proposed $8 billion for a new Community College to Career Fund that would directly inject 2 million trained workers into an economy in need. The program would build on the success of the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

It’s hard to fault educators for feeling as if they’ve been here before. Prior to 2010’s highly anticipated White House Summit on Community Colleges, the administration proposed upwards of $9 billion for community colleges as part of the American Graduation Initiative. Despite enormous fanfare, the legislation was swept up in heated health care negotiations and eventually discarded.

Will this latest incarnation fare better? Community college leaders can hope. But, with thousands of students and employers relying on them to jump-start the national economy, many institutions aren’t waiting around to find out.

Creative spirit

Recognized by the Aspen Institute as the most innovative community college in the nation, Florida’s Valencia College has a reputation for making bold reforms in the face of tough challenges.

Nearly half of Valencia’s students are minorities—African American, Hispanic/Latino or Native American—and many are low-income, according to Aspen. Yet, more than 50 percent of its students graduate or transfer within three years of entering college, compared to less than 40 percent for community colleges nationally.

One reason why is LifeMap, a blended in-person and online counseling service that offers academic and career planning and advising. The career-development service helps students hone their skills and interests, choose a major, evaluate job options, and develop a plan for how to achieve life and work goals.

The lion’s share of the college’s innovations focus on producing better learning outcomes and completion, as a matter of mission and under the assumption that students who succeed on the first attempt free up capacity for additional students, making the college more effective and efficient,” says Sanford “Sandy” Shugart, Valencia’s president. To expand its capacity in a time of fiscal restraint, Valencia has steadfastly grown the ranks of its online program from 8 percent of total enrollment just a few years ago to more than 20 percent today. As more part-time faculty come on board to teach more students, the college has also developed online professional development programs.

Combining a portion of its Aspen prize money with other financial gifts, Shugart says Valencia plans to launch the Aspen Fund for Innovation, a $1.1 million cache to support promising practices intended to improve student outcomes, boost college completion, and increase job placement.

Path to progress

Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) in California is another college that faces significant challenges. Like several colleges across the state, SBCC has been forced to endure severe budget cuts.

Two of its more recent programs—Express to Success and Express to Transfer—were created to move students through the system, ensuring that they achieve their academic goals as quickly and efficiently as possible. With state funding no longer an option, administrators relied on two federal grants, totaling more than $7 million, to fund the efforts.

Express to Success, takes aim at underprepared students. With research suggesting that 70 percent of entering students arrive on campus unready for the rigor of college-level courses in core disciplines such as writing, reading, and mathematics, SBCC Acting Superintendent and President Jack Friedlander and his staff spent two years planning and piloting the basic skills program, which launched in 2011, for more than 250 at-risk students.

Students who enter the program are expected to pass their first degree or transfer courses in English and mathematics in two years or less. The program offers a range of services—structured pathways, student support, close monitoring of individual progress, and timely intervention, among them—to ensure that happens.

The results, so far, have been encouraging. By the end of fall 2011, 95 percent of all Express to Success students remained enrolled in college, 80 percent successfully passed the core English and mathematics courses in which they enrolled, and 70 percent passed as many as two English or mathematics courses in a single semester.

The second program, Express to Transfer, builds off the same tenets that made the Express to Success initiative so effective. With development scheduled to begin this fall, SBCC faculty and staff will work with students who have successfully completed their Express to Success basic skills courses, or who enter the college one level below college-ready English or mathematics, but are committed to obtaining the necessary credits and education to transfer to a four-year college.

The industry angle

In lieu of sufficient state funding, some colleges have aligned with local businesses, which agree to share the burden of preparing students for work.

Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in North Carolina has made workforce development and jobs creation a strategic priority, says Richard Zollinger, the college’s vice president for learning. A major player in economic development in Charlotte, the college prides itself on meeting the hiring needs of companies that relocate to the region or expand existing facilities in the area.

CPCC has spent the last two years building “workforce pipelines” that match specially trained students with the hiring needs of local employers.

As part of a partnership with communications and networking giant Siemens, CPCC received $1.2 million from the North Carolina Community College System’s Customized Training Program to conduct pre-employment assessments
and customized training that met technology firms’ specific hiring needs.

An initial assessment phase helps the college determine which job skills an individual has and which skills need to be developed. The college then provides customized training to close the skills gap.

The first year of the two-year program was completed in January and prepared some 490 people for jobs with
Siemens, Zollinger says. Dozens of companies with facilities in the area, such as food products provider Chiquita Brands LLC, and others have worked with the college in a similar capacity over the years.

One of CPCC’s most successful workforce development programs is a “re-careering center” that’s designed to help dislocated workers secure jobs in new and emerging fields. The center assesses students’ abilities and provides education to prepare them for work in growing fields—such as occupational therapy, pharmacy, and mechatronics—or helps them apply existing skills to available positions in related industries.

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