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Seminole State College President E. Ann McGee (left) congratulates a graduating student.
Photo: Kelly Canova
Growing up in a trailer park in Florida with a father in prison and a mother who was a high school dropout, Dawn Ginnetti never considered going to college. In fact, she barely made it through high school.Today, after a few setbacks along the way, Ginnetti, 36, is an honor student at the elite Smith College in Massachusetts. She was one of just 30 students admitted to Smith, on a full scholarship, through the Ada Comstock Scholars program for nontraditional students. She’s majoring in American studies and plans to go for a doctorate. Ginnetti’s career goal: to teach in a community college, because it was at Valencia College in Florida where her life turned around. “Choosing to enroll in Valencia College was the best decision I ever made, hands down,” Ginnetti said. All the personal attention, tutoring sessions, peer mentoring and other resources there “were hugely helpful for me,” she said. “I didn’t know how to write a research paper before Valencia.”Ginnetti’s story illustrates the value of some of the strategies community colleges are using to help students succeed.Other successful approaches cited by Rachel Singer, vice president for community college relations and applied research at Achieving the Dream, include mandatory orientation sessions and student success courses for freshmen and self-paced math modules focusing on individual students’ needs rather than lengthy developmental courses. “Making that first semester really important will lead to improved retention rates, and ultimately, you will end up with higher graduation rates,” Singer said.Outreach to transfers Another key strategy is counting reverse transfers as graduates. There is no reason a community college shouldn’t count toward an associate degree the credits a transfer student earns at a university, Singer said.
“Using transfer rates as an indicator for completion is critical,” she said. Graduation rates are the key indicator, but community colleges should “change the way we define success.”
Seminole State College of Florida has launched an “automatic graduation” system that searches student records and identifies students who have completed enough courses for a certificate but haven’t applied to graduate. During the past year, the system resulted in a 146 percent increase in the number of students earning certificates over the previous year, said President E. Ann McGee. Many of those students are working toward associate degrees, so they aren’t too concerned about signing up for the certificates they’ve earned, McGee said. But having a certificate “gives them something tangible” to show for their work, and “the more credentials students have, the more success they’ll have in the workforce,” she said. Plans are underway to expand the program to students eligible for associate degrees.Other initiatives at Seminole State to help students succeed academically include the ALEKS web-based math program, a mandatory college success course, and an early-alert program for instructors to notify counselors about struggling students.An initiative to import the college’s math curriculum to 10th-grade math classes in the local public school district three years ago has reduced the number of students in remediation from 75 percent to 35 percent, McGee said.This fall, the college will launch a “Refresh” program that will allow students not quite ready for college-level work to use a software program to refresh their skills and then retake placement tests—and avoid having to take developmental classes.In Ohio, Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) has adopted several techniques to increase completion rates, including the “Wanderers Campaign,” which used data from the National Student Clearinghouse to identify students who had left without graduating.“If you say to them they only need a few courses to finish, you can get them back on track,” said Sandy Robinson, vice president of academic affairs at CCC. “With community college students, they often take classes, stop out and come back.” They don’t finish because “life gets in the way,” she said.Since 2009, CCC has granted 213 “reverse transfer” degrees in partnership with the University of Akron, Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland State University and Ursuline College.Guaranteed admissionThe Maricopa-ASU Partnership Program (MAPP), launched in 2009, offers guaranteed admission to Arizona State University (ASU) to eligible students in the Maricopa Community Colleges system.To be in MAPP, students must maintain a certain GPA—2.0 for some majors and 2.5 or even 3.5 for others. There are about 8,400 students in the program.MAPP students have access to ASU transfer specialists based at the college’s campuses. Once admitted to ASU, MAPP students aren’t subject to full tuition increases and can apply for ASU scholarships.“The objective is to provide incentives for students to pursue very prescriptive program pathways to prepare them for specific majors at the university,” said Andrea Buehman, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Maricopa. “It’s based on the concept that the more students do at a lower level to specifically prepare, the more successful they will be at a university.”“We know anecdotally students are quite enthusiastic about the program," Buehman added. "We believe students are more goal-oriented and moving through faster,” she said, but there is no hard data yet on MAPP’s impact on completion rates. If Ginnetti hadn’t gotten into Smith, she would have transferred to the University of Central Florida (UCF) under the Direct Connect program, which guarantees admission to students who earn an associate degree at four community colleges: Valencia, Seminole, Lake-Sumter and Brevard.Direct Connect served nearly 10,000 students last year. UCF has placed advisors at all four community colleges to assist with course selection and advisement and to help students “get through as seamlessly and quickly as possible,” McGee said. Personal connectionValencia’s strategies to promote completion include “Life Map,” a five-stage plan that guides students through college, a mandatory success course for students in developmental education and online tools to help students conduct a degree audit. The college runs audits to identify students with enough credits to earn a degree and asks them if they want to graduate, but “we don’t automatically graduate students because that would threaten their financial aid,” said Joyce Romano, vice president for student affairs.The system identifies potential problems early, so if students need to complete certain courses, they can do so during the upcoming term. The idea is to “keep students on track so they always know where they stand,” Romano said. “A personal connection really helps.”Valencia also offers about 300 free, no-credit workshops, known as “skillshops,” to help students prepare for careers and the transition to a four-year institution.All these measures have helped the college attain a three-year graduation/transfer rate of 50 percent, compared with a national average of 40 percent—and that kind of success led the college to become the first recipient of the Aspen Prize, which recognizes excellence in community colleges. “I really cannot say enough wonderful things about Valencia,” said Ginnetti. “I went from thinking I wasn’t college material to being on the dean’s list at Smith. It was such a positive transformative experience for me. It changed my life.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges