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Reaching student completion goals will require cultural, financial shifts

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​If community colleges hope to reach a national goal of helping an additional 5 million of their students complete college by 2020, two-year institutions will have to reallocate resources rather than rely on new funding, according to foundation and government officials.
 
But refocusing and moving funds around won’t be easy, noted Dewayne Mathews, vice president of policy and strategy at Lumina Foundation for Education.
 
“It’s going to require a cultural shift,” he said during a panel discussion on college completion during the summer retreat of the American Association of Community Colleges’ board of directors in Washington, D.C.
 
Colleges will have to ask tough questions, such as whether to focus on programs that streamline the time it takes for students to attain a credential, and whether to zero in on pathways to careers and dictate what courses students must take to earn a credential rather than giving them a choice of courses, said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
 
“If community colleges got better at doing some of those things, they might save some resources,” she said.
 
The Gates and Lumina foundations have jointly pledged billions of dollars over the next decade to help community colleges reach a goal of graduating millions of additional students to make the U.S. more economically competitive. The federal government will also provide billions of new dollars to community colleges to help them prepare students for careers.
 
But colleges must also look at how they can better spend their current funds, the panelists said.
 The U.S. Department of Education’s new deputy under secretary, James Kvaal, supported the idea of refocusing resources, noting that tough economic times have historically been a good time to step back and reevaluate how resources are used.
 
“Not everything is going to require more money,” he said.
 
Kvaal, who previously served as a White House economic advisor, also seemed to support accelerated learning at community colleges, noting it is a model that has been successful for for-profit institutions. He added that proprietary schools have also been more successful in directing students toward career paths rather than just courses.
 
Stanley Jones, president of Complete College America, is also a proponent of accelerated learning, especially of one-year technical degrees. In June, Jones and Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis called on community colleges to streamline training programs, noting they can better serve displaced workers by offering prescribed curricula, creating block schedules and moving students through training programs in cohorts.
 
“It’s an underutilized strategy,” Jones said at the AACC board retreat. “Students have too many choices. We’re much better off offering just core curricula.”
 
Getting to younger and older students
 
Kvaal highlighted the federal government’s efforts to get more students to attend and complete college, from tax incentives to increasing available federal student grants, and even simplifying the process to apply for these grants.
 
“We know some of that affects persistence,” he said, noting that the cost of higher education prompts many students to leave before attaining a credential.
 
About 11 million postsecondary education students are eligible for Pell Grants, but they have not applied, probably because they don’t know that they are eligible or they find the process confusing and cumbersome, Kvaal said. The department is reaching out to high schools to better inform students and their families about available aid and to tell them the application process has become easier, he said.
 
Lumina's strategy to increase the number of college graduates focuses on returning adults—people who have gone to college and earned credits but have not earned a credential. About 37 million people between ages 25 and 65 have some college credits but have not earned a degree, comprising about 22 percent of the working population, Mathews said.
 
“These are people who want to get a credential, but for some reason haven’t,” he said, noting there are myriad reasons that students leave college without completing a degree or certificate.
 
The Gates Foundation, on the other hand, is focusing on first-time college students, especially students who need developmental education, to reach the completion goal.
 
Getting grassroots support
 
Refocusing and reallocating resources requires not only the support of campus leaders, but also support from faculty and staff members, who must feel they have the backing of administrators to try new things, the panelists said.
 
“This is not going to happen if it’s just top-down,” Mathews said. “People have got to buy in and they have to be empowered.”
 
AACC must “galvanize the field,” noted Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College (Oregon) and AACC board member. She said a toolkit comprising resources to engage faculty and communities and proven practices would help colleges initiate such efforts.
 
In April, AACC and five other national community college organizations representing presidents, trustees, students and faculty agreed to work together to increase student completion rates, which included a commitment to change institutional culture. Representatives from several of those organizations spoke at the AACC board retreat about their organizations’ roles in increasing student success.
 
AACC is moving ahead to instill models to increase student success, noted AACC President and CEO George Boggs, citing AACC programs, such as: MentorLinks, which helps minority students plan careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math; Plus 50 Initiative, which focuses on older adult learners; and service learning, which research indicates helps students succeed.
 
“We will make sure that (AACC’s) Future Leaders Institute and the Presidents Academy Summer Institute also focus on college completion, and there will be more targeted outreach to minority leaders,” Boggs said.
 
He added that the Association of Community College Trustees will also be encouraging governing boards to develop plans and monitor success in improving college completion.
 
Help on the Web
 
Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of two-year colleges, plans to do more data-driven research to support its findings that the success rate of community college students who transfer to a four-year institution increases significantly when they are engaged at the two-year college.
 
The organization also touts its Web-based portal CollegeFish.org as a way to help students research the mechanics of transferring as they set their academic goals.
 
“The students are matched with an institution that is the best fit by meeting their financial needs and program needs,” said Rod Risley, Phi Theta Kappa’s executive director. “Some just look at colleges right down the street, but the Web site may place them with colleges they have never heard of before.”
 
By using CollegeFish.org, institutions also have an opportunity to monitor students' progress, Risely said. For example, they can see whether a student’s transfer process has halted, indicating that the institution may have to contact the student to determine if he or she needs assistance.
 
“The site is as much about college completion as it is about college transfer,” said Risley, who hopes to expand the site. 
 
Using innovation
 
Meanwhile, the League for Innovation in the Community College is in its second year of two projects focusing on completion. The Brighter Futures project prepares dislocated workers for jobs and focuses on increasing academic progress, retention and completion rates for these workers.
 
In cooperation with LaGuardia Community College in New York, the League also participates in the Global Skills for College Completion project, which organizes an online community of 26 leading basic-skills faculty from various colleges to draft math and writing basic-skills instruction to help increase pass rates to 80 percent.
 
“We bring the faculty together who are doing good work and have a good success rate, while sharing these practices and model,” said Gerardo de los Santos, the League’s president and CEO. 
 
The National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) is also moving on plans to ensure that faculty and staff are discussing issues related to college completion, such as engagement, and how to implement model completion techniques on campuses, according to NISOD Director Evelyn Waiwaiole.
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