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College completion is not just about earning a credential. As Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, noted during a recent meeting with faculty and staff from community colleges across the state: “The conversation has to go deeper than just completion. We could hand out a piece of paper to each student and really boost our completion rates, but at the end of the day, if we don’t examine what our students can do with that piece of paper, then it’s meaningless.”
Community colleges in North Carolina have been tasked to design a clear pathway for students’ progression, from the first moment of connection through completion of the credential. According to U.S. Education Department data, the completion rate for students in North Carolina pursuing an associate degree is 20.5 percent and 29.5 percent nationally. We are obviously losing students along the way, as they encounter barriers that prevent them from graduating with a credential.
Last year, Davidson County Community College was one of the North Carolina community colleges that participated in Completion by Design, a program to improve student completion rates funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the participating colleges is to find those loss points and provide timely interventions that may increase retention. Identified promising practices will then be shared with community colleges across the country.
The planning year
As a member of the North Carolina cadre, I would like to provide an insider view of what happened during our first planning year. It has become clear that the mission of the community college can no longer be focused on simply providing access but rather must now move students to completion—but completion has to mean something. What labor market value does that credential have? How does it translate into students successfully pursuing an advanced degree or obtaining a job?
We were asked to consider one student’s journey and design their ideal pathway, from application all the way through to completion. And we were encouraged not to worry about limitations or restrictions. However, even within college teams there was difference of opinion on issues.
Our challenge then became weaving all these ideas and principles into one careful, intentional integrated comprehensive pathway. But how do you take those ideas and come to consensus to design a sustainable, manageable, conceptual design that will be ready to be implemented in six months? Should we eliminate developmental courses all together, as some have suggested, or should all students complete all developmental classes before moving into their program of study? Ultimately, we are making evidence-based, data-supported decisions that we believe will help our students. We are also identifying leverage points to determine which practices will make the most impact.
A greater partnership
Throughout the year, there has been collaboration not just among the college groups within the cadre, but among the states as well, through national meetings and an online portal. This collaborative atmosphere allowed the institutions to form a national learning community, allowing the participating colleges to borrow best practices and help each other avoid mistakes.
Steve Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College in Ohio, spoke at one of our national meetings recently and explained that all students have life systems—backgrounds, goals, ambitions, intelligence, personality—and every college is a system—academics, student services, technology—so our work is to help ensure those systems match.
Historically, such initiatives have been pretty narrow in comparison, focusing on a small number of students during students’ initial time of entry. The Completion by Design initiative is allowing colleges to build a comprehensive pathway from the moment students first express interest through their completion of a credential and successful connection in the next step of their life journey.
We have been able to recognize common loss points and are now implementing systems change to address them. For instance, we know large numbers of students delay taking required math courses until they get to the end of their program. We lose many of them because they cannot pass the course, which is required for graduation.
We also have identified a need for more student incentives, to help them recognize when they reach milestones, since we know that sense of accomplishment can often push them through to completion.
A new approach
The initiative seeks to provide structure and standardization. While some may view this as limiting student choice, others argue that it is a rather effective way to provide guided choice.
We are creating bridge programs, also referred to as “launch pads” or “on ramps.” Students take exploratory courses in a general direction they have expressed interest in, which will ensure appropriate program selection. Instead of throwing college course catalogues at students with little more apparent order or meaning than the alphabetic listing of course names, we can provide students with a roadmap that makes it clear where the program will begin and end. Students will no longer be overwhelmed by the number of course choices and will make the best choice for their future.
True innovation capitalizes on more effective uses of resources, both human and technical. In discussing new technology, we are cognizant of the tendency to create flashy dashboards without first assessing what information is needed. So we are emphasizing the value of determining what purpose it will serve before creating the tool itself, addressing questions such as: What data do we need to collect? What will help our colleges the most to make decisions which will impact our students?
Our overarching goal with Completion By Design is genuine change, the kind that still shows up a century later as a pivotal turning point in the history of education. We are redefining “the community college way.”
Holliday is director of campus innovations and student success at Davidson County Community College (North Carolina).
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges