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After only a few students showed up at Community College Completion Corps (C4) events at Brookhaven College in Texas, the members of the college’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society decided to take their Commitment to Complete campaign to their peers waiting in line to register for classes.
"The lines were all the way around the building so students were happy to talk with us," said student Michael Navarro, who will receive his associate degree next month.
To ensure that Phi Theta Kappa members' conversations focused on degree completion, the college's academic advisers armed the students with information about core curriculum requirements and the steps necessary to complete them efficiently.
“It was amazing how little most of those students (in line) knew about the core curriculum,” said Navarro, who related the story recently at the annual Achieving the Dream conference.
By the third day of informal presentations to their “captive” audience, PTK members had persuaded 2,000 Brookhaven students to sign their C4 banner pledging to complete community college credentials.
At nearby North Lake College (NLC), PTK members polled students to determine what interferes with their academic goals. The biggest hurdles were time-management constraints, lack of college readiness, financial difficulties including money for books and transportation, language barriers and misunderstandings about the value of associate degrees, according to students Jeong Lee and Hanh Nguyen, who reported the survey results at the Achieving the Dream meeting. (Lee, who is a member of PTK's 2012 All-Texas Academic Team, will complete his associate degree this spring. Nguyen has already graduated with an associate degree and is enrolled at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry.)
Getting the word out about completion
When the honor students presented their findings to 200 NLC faculty members, they also asked the instructors to talk with students in their classes about the importance of completing associate degrees. After the faculty meeting, several instructors volunteered to help the college's PTK chapter through four workshops last fall to help students address the issues identified in the survey. One hundred thirty-two of the 187 students who attended the workshops filed degree plans.
During 2011, 176 Phi Theta Kappa chapters gathered more than 40,000 signatures at events held throughout the nation to mobilize community college students in a grassroots public-relations campaign to promote degree completion and to involve faculty in the effort.
"The faculty members are key; they are the ones who see the students," said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. At the Achieving the Dream meeting, Risley urged administrators and trustees to rethink their strategies for sharing data with faculty members and involving them early on in the decisions about strategies to increase degree completion.
The grassroots student C4 campaign and students' potential to energize faculty are examples of the "upside down" changes necessary to increase completion rates by 50 percent by 2020, Risley said.
"They (faculty) must understand that we have to change this culture in our colleges from a right to fail to an opportunity to succeed with support," he said.
In a subsequent interview, Risley said that the role of faculty members themselves must change.
“It's no longer going to be enough for them to be distributors of knowledge,” he said. “They are going to have to engage in a support role.”
That support role includes talking with students about their career goals and the courses students should take for particular career paths, as well as academic advising, Risley said. He noted that online scheduling and efforts to streamline enrollment procedures have left students without the consulting processes that existed decades ago.
Costs of support services
The other "upside down" change Risley sees is in college financial models based on enrollment. He would like the cost of support services that help students complete degrees to be included upfront in funding calculations. That’s an idea that will likely draw some discussion, especially when colleges are tightening budgets. But it is necessary if the country is to increase the number of students with postsecondary credentials.
"In the short term, there's going to be some real pain as we look at what we mean by access and support," Risley said.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges