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Presidents, administrators, deans, and faculty members from Maryland’s 16 community colleges explored strategies for advancing the completion agenda and shared best practices at the second annual statewide Summit on Completion.
The Dec. 9 event, sponsored by the Maryland Association of Community Colleges (MACC), focused on successful efforts undertaken by colleges since they signed “A Promise to Act” at last year’s summit, and to push for a broader definition of completion, said Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County (CBCC), which hosted the meeting.
According to Guy Altieri, president of Hagerstown Community College and chair of MACC Presidents, “one of our greatest challenges is explaining our success.”
The big picture
A key factor in determining whether a student will complete an associate degree or certification is “human contact” among students, faculty and support personnel, said keynote Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the American Association of Community Colleges' 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges.
“Think about the big picture,” he urged. “If we’re serious about completion, we have to remember it’s not about improving individual classes. It also has to be about advising and goal setting.”
For many students, math is the “burial ground,” Treisman noted, suggesting it doesn’t make sense to require someone who wants to be an EMT to know how to factor a trinomial. Rather than algebra, the math curriculum should focus on statistics, mathematical modeling and other topics that “connect to people’s lives,” he said.
Another big challenge Treisman cited is the need to rethink placement tests. He said students should be required to prepare for these tests, because “one week of preparation could save students a course-and-a-half in developmental math.” He called it “criminal” that students “don’t know the cost of failing a placement test.”
Giving students too many choices isn’t doing them any favors. Students do much better with “high levels of structure, fewer courses and high levels of support,” Treisman said. And tutoring for students falling behind in developmental math should be mandatory, not optional.
Treisman called to end what he called a “cycle of disinvestment,” where students start out thinking they will succeed, but lower their expectations when they have trouble with their first assignment. Colleges should focus on “student re-engagement cycles,” with faculty, support staff, deans and the president working together on strategies to raise completion rates, he said.
Sharing best practices
Danette Howard, interim secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, urged community colleges to implement innovative ways to raise completion rates, including changes in the way courses are designed and delivered; more collaboration with four-year colleges, including reverse transfer credits to help students earn associate degrees; and new ways to re-engage “almost completers” who are just a few credits shy of a degree.
Howard also called for better ways to measure success, noting it took her mother eight years to earn a degree. That kind of success should be recognized, she said, although it doesn’t show up in the way completion rates are currently calculated.
In one of 22 breakout sessions at the summit, CCBC administrators described how they scaled up interventions to improve completion rates. All CCBC students enrolled in a certificate or degree program must take a one-credit orientation course the first semester that covers study skills, technology, financial literacy, time management, and college and career goal setting.
According to Susan Delker, chair of CCBC’s academic development department, the fall-to-spring retention rate was 77 percent for students who took that course, compared to 73 percent before the mandatory course was implemented.
CCBC also reported promising results with its accelerated learning program in English, which calls for students who need a developmental course to take English 101 at the same time. Students in that program have a better understanding of how time-management and study skills help them succeed with the regular course, said Donna McKissick, dean of developmental education and special academic programs.
At Frederick Community College, a committee of administrators, faculty and staff charged with researching best practices for improving first-year success developed a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen. The program provides sessions on instruction in math, English and study skills targeted toward at-risk students, including first-generation college-goers, students of color, students with disabilities and those who need developmental courses.
The bridge session helped students form a community and foster connections among faculty and students before the semester even started, said assistant English professor Amy Lee.
Pressure for accountability
Since community colleges were established 100 years ago, they’ve “had to constantly fight for legitimacy,” in terms of respect and resources, said Rod Risley, executive director of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK). But the tables have turned.
“The media are full of positive stories about community colleges, and top universities are aggressively recruiting our students,” he said.
However, community colleges will face more pressure for accountability with new state funding and grant requirements tied to completion rates, Risley said.
“Performance measures are coming whether we like it or not,” he said.
PTK supports a “culture of completion” by sponsoring events where students are encouraged to sign a “commit to complete” pledge. Risley urged community college leaders to talk about pathways rather than courses, tell students that engagement is essential, and, if a student is eligible for an honor society, make it mandatory.
For students who plan to leave college before completing an associate degree—whether to transfer to a four-year college or for a job opportunity—“Ask your students if they want to leave $400,000 on the table," said Risley, referring to how much more money they will earn in their lifetime if they get a credential.
A broader definition
The definition of “college completion” needs to be changed to reflect the realities of community colleges, noted Craig Clagett, vice president of planning, marketing and assessment at Carroll Community College.
He listed several flaws with the current federal data-collection system: It excludes part-time students; it includes people who are not seeking an associate degree; it makes no allowance for developmental education; and it doesn’t take into account people who take more than three years to earn a degree.
The Complete College America model isn’t much better, Clagett said. It assumes full-time community college students remain full-time, for example, and that all credit-seeking students are going for an associate degree.
The Maryland Model of Community College Student Degree Progress, developed by MACC Presidents, offers a much better alternative, Clagett said. It rewards persistence, includes interim measures of success, and uses a behavioral definition of “degree seeking” by focusing on a cohort of students who attempted 18 hours during the first two years. The model also includes part-time students and those with jobs.
“These students are eventually going to succeed. It’s just going to take them a little longer,” Clagett said.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges