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All of us have been hearing about the importance of education in America. You may have heard that the U.S. is falling on the global education front. You may have also heard that many students are starting a college education but are not completing. What you may not have heard is everything that community colleges are doing to change these statements in their corners of the world.
Student success is at the heart of many community colleges, including San Jacinto College (SJC) in Texas, where I serve as chancellor. It is one of SJC’s four strategic goals, and every decision we make is centered on the success of our students.
I’m often asked, “How is student success defined?” That is the great debate occurring at higher education institutions around the country, especially as state funding is decreasing nationwide, and enrollments are rising across the board. It is also a conversation that is the focus of many of our elected officials as they consider new parameters around funding.
At the state and national level, there is much talk about student success, graduation rates and the completion agenda. Earlier this year, the American Association of Community Colleges released the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), which will allow community colleges across the nation to more accurately report their successes in the areas of student progress and achievement, implementation of career and technical education programs, and transparency in reporting outcomes. Previously, the success of community college students had been evaluated on many of the same measures as four-year institutions, which posed some issues. When thinking about these factors, we have to take into consideration the fact that more than half of the students who attend a community college do so part-time.
At SJC, those part-time students represent 68.7 percent of our enrollment. This alone poses a challenge, as these students are balancing work and families, as well as their schoolwork. This can make success and completion a challenge, but SJC is putting measures in place to help our students complete what they start.
Community colleges across the U.S. are implementing myriad methods to drive up retention and completion rates. SJC has implemented a new mandatory student orientation for all first-time-in-college students, and we have started a mandatory student success course. These two initiatives help students understand the rigors of college and assist them in becoming acclimated with the college culture. New student orientation introduces students to the campus, faculty and staff and provides resources for them that they can use throughout the year. The student success course includes such topics as setting goals, commitment, motivation, career planning, educational planning, networking, using campus resources and exam preparation.
These two elements alone are helping students on their path to success and have caught the attention of the national organization Achieving the Dream, which designated SJC as an Achieving the Dream Leader College for demonstrating sustained improvement and accomplishments in the area of student success. Throughout the five years our college has participated in Achieving the Dream, we have increased fall-to-spring persistence from 73 percent in 2007 to 78 percent in 2010.
This improvement is directly associated with the combination of interventions, including the mandatory new student orientation and student success course, along with a first-year experience program, free tutoring, disallowing late registration so students are in class on the first day, and the Men of Honor program to mentor African-American young men.
Doing more with fewer funds
Similar to many community colleges across the country, SJC faced significant budget cuts last year. But rather than automatically increasing tuition or instituting an across-the-board budget cut, we instead looked inside our organization to see where and how we could better use our dollars and our people, while maintaining a high level of service to our students.
We had to make some difficult and significant changes. It wasn’t easy. At the time, I felt it was important to make the necessary changes internally, rather than passing the burden on to our students or taxpayers.
With our consistent growth in enrollment, we are now at a point where, unfortunately, we must increase tuition in order to create funds to meet our student success agenda. We must be able to hire new faculty and staff to meet an increase in enrollment by nearly 25 percent since fall 2007, which translates to 5,841 more students in the last five years. I assure you, this tuition increase is not a knee-jerk reaction; rather, it is a necessary tool to continue serving our students.
For more than a year now, we have had difficult conversations throughout the college that have led us to this point, something I often refer to as our “new normal.” The tuition increase will go into effect beginning with the fall 2012 semester and will increase tuition by $5 per credit hour for in-district students, or $60 for students taking 12 credit hours.
However, even with this increase, SJC tuition remains as the second lowest rate of all community colleges in the Gulf Coast and is still about a quarter of the cost of university tuition and fee rates in the Gulf Coast and across Texas. There is no better value for higher education in the region.
With that said, as we tackle the budget every year, we will continue to look internally for areas where we can repurpose personnel or resources to reduce our operating costs, and we will continue to consider areas where we can eliminate costs or generate revenue from an operations stream and not tuition or taxes.
An economic foundation
Community colleges remain the lifeblood of higher education and workforce training, and are critical in the success and vitality of our communities. We need to continue to refine the definition of student success, and stress the value of the associate degree. To help in this effort, SJC is joining forces with the city of Houston, local businesses, and the Center for Houston’s Future in a competition against 57 other major cities for the greatest increase in its two- and four-year college graduation rates. The goal is to raise the graduation rate in Houston by at least 1 percent, which would amount to an additional $4.2 billion in personal revenue for the Houston region.
I’m excited about the direction we are headed here at SJC as we continue to refine our student success initiatives and focus on the achievements of our amazing students. It’s been a challenging process, but every day I see that hard work paying off.
To give you a taste of the success of some of our students, this last year we had a young lady, who was a Clear Horizons Early College High School graduate, move on to West Point Military Academy where she earned an “A” upon completion of basic training. Troy Williams, another dual-credit student, earned his associate degree before graduating as salutatorian from C.E. King High School. He was raised by a single mom, and is now studying international politics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Joseph Pompa already holds associate and bachelor’s degrees, but chose to turn in his more than five years of solid work experience within the business and financial world to return to SJC to pursue a career in engineering. I could go on and on, as many of our students have similar stories.
African-American educator and author Booker T. Washington once said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” I couldn’t agree more. Despite the obstacles that our students may face, every day we are helping them to overcome those barriers as they work to achieve their personal and educational goals. They are successes.
Hellyer is chancellor of San Jacinto College in Texas.
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