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To understand what Completion by Design (CbD) means by “starting with scale” consider this: South Texas College plans for its CbD initiative to affect all of its 11,000 dual-enrollment students and 3,000 first-time-in-college students. These two groups of students are expected to comprise one-third of the college's total enrollment next fall.
The combined enrollment of the Texas community colleges participating in the initiative, which CbD refers to as the Texas cadre, is 289,000 students—about one-third of all the community college students in Texas.
The Texas cadre—along with the CbD colleges in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida—have used the past year to analyze data that show where they lose large numbers of students. The data were compiled by the Community College Research Center of Columbia University's Teacher's College.
A list of community colleges participating in Completion by Design
After identifying target populations, the CbD colleges formulated remedies that will help students stay enrolled and complete credentials that lead to employment.
“We want to make sure at whatever level people exit that they get a good job,” said Nan Poppe, CbD executive director.
Keeping the momentum
CbD is a five-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that is working with selected community colleges to increase completion and graduation rates for low-income students under age 26. The initiative advocates for additional structure to prevent enrollment losses and to create momentum at critical junctures in students’ community college experiences.
The Gates Foundation is currently reviewing implementation proposals that CbD colleges submitted at the end of April. Each state cadre that the foundation selects this summer will receive $2.1 million per year for two years to implement strategies that meet the needs of their target populations. The final two years of the initiative will focus on scaling effective strategies at community colleges throughout the selected states.
Poppe said the data divvys most of the CbD colleges into two populations: people who start with academic deficits that result in their placement in developmental courses and students who have earned 30 or more credits but do not have a credential after five or more years of enrollment. (Miami Dade College, the only Florida college in the initiative, plans to focus on non-native English speakers.)
Many of the students who have earned 30 or more credits are hanging out, waiting for admission into an allied health program or another selective major.
“Students are doing a lot of wandering,” Poppe said, adding that when the colleges took a close look at these students’ transcripts, they found that most of them “had almost no chance of getting into one of those programs.”
Time to focus
At the recent annual Achieving the Dream meeting, Poppe fielded questions from the audience about CbD’s impact on community colleges' open access mission.
“Access without success is a hollow promise. What we need is to give students access to complete programs where they can earn a certificate or degree,” Poppe said. “If we can come up with these new student-focused, completion-focused pathways, then we will be able to serve more students.”
In recent interviews with Community College Times, Poppe explained that the current entry process at most community colleges does not provide the “time and space for people to make good career choices.”
Although each cadre and the colleges within them have a unique approach to address their students' needs, Poppe said all CbD colleges have proposed redesigning the entry experience for new students.
The Lone Star College System's proposal contains a novel approach to propel students who are midway through their academic programs. It wants to offer “success stipends” that would provide financial rewards for students when they complete certain academic milestones.
Performance-based scholarships have been the subject of two MDRC studies. Low-income parents randomly chosen to participate in an Opening Doors demonstration project at two New Orleans-area community colleges in 2004-2005 responded enthusiastically to additional financial aid. They were more likely to register for classes full time and to persist and earn more credits than students in a control group. In a larger, ongoing demonstration of performance-based scholarships in Ohio, New York and New Mexico, MDRC has found “modest but positive effects on important makers of academic progress.”
A range of approaches
Without providing college-specific details on the total system redesigns that the other CbD colleges have proposed, Poppe said elements of the proposals include mandatory student success courses, individualized education plans, early selection of majors, electronic tracking, early academic warning systems, intensive advising and expansion of dual-enrollment programs.
Many of the proposed strategies have been piloted by Achieving the Dream colleges; most of the CbD colleges are also Achieving the Dream colleges.
“The most important thing is that…being in Achieving the Dream…really got colleges started down the pathway of (building) a culture of evidence and then a culture of inquiry and (they) learned how to use data to make decisions,” Poppe said.
What is different about CbD is its attempt to coherently change practices and policies on a large scale that fairly quickly affects tens of thousands of students. Poppe noted that some changes can be implemented immediately, while changes in curricula and restructuring of advising services to involve faculty will take several semesters to establish.
“In a lot of community colleges now, faculty do not have any advising or the advising they do is very informal, so this would be a significant change,” Poppe said.
Getting faculty on board
Because the colleges are still developing their proposals, faculty members have yet to respond. However, in an April report on community college enrollment trends, the Center for the Future of Higher Education criticized the completion agenda. The center is affiliated with the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, which was created in 2011 by leaders of faculty organizations from 21 states.
“For those who do gain entry, community colleges are ‘rebooting’ their curricula to put more emphasis on narrow job training and ‘workforce development’ and less on a broad liberal arts and sciences education necessary for continuing on for a bachelor’s degree. By focusing on providing short-term certificates in response to the immediate needs of the corporate private sector rather than on educating students for transfer to a four-year school, community colleges are seriously narrowing their educational purpose,” according to Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap.
Poppe contends that connecting student pathways to labor markets is a logical component of CbD. These connections, along with more structured internships, expose students to universities and to work environments and should be part of a well-rounded education, she said. However, she noted that CbD encourages students to complete degrees.
“We would like to see a majority of students earn a two-year degree because the evidence is pretty clear that those who transfer with a degree are more likely to earn a baccalaureate,” Poppe said.
Whether the push for higher completion numbers will reduce academic rigor is a “very legitimate concern,” Poppe said. But given the importance that faculty place on the academic quality of degrees, Poppe, a former community college administrator, does not expect the completion agenda to have a negative effect on quality.
“I have confidence in faculty. I just don’t think that's going to happen,” she said.
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