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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

With the economy in chaos and a new administration taking power, the nation is looking for a better way to meet the educational and vocational needs of its citizens. A key strategy may reside in that most American of educational institutions, the community college. Two-year colleges have been the pathway to middle-class careers for millions of Americans since before the dawn of the 20th century, when another economic crisis, the Panic of 1893, led to the earliest discussions about them. The idea caught on in a big way in the early 20th century, when they were seen as a creative, community-minded way to implement educational reform and address the growing need for vocational education, access to higher education, and a way to educate part-time and older students. Since their explosive growth in the 1960s, they have been an integral part of the American higher education landscape.

In 2009, we face a different economic—and educational—crisis. Given their open-door policies and wide distribution, community colleges are now accessible to most of the nation’s population. But far too many students are leaving without getting the education they need to move along their career paths, find new ones, or complete a four-year education at a university.

In this issue of Change, we look at Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national initiative dedicated to the idea that community colleges should be as successful at retaining and graduating students, particularly students of color and low-income students, as they are at enrolling them. Conceived by the Lumina Foundation for Education in 2004, Achieving the Dream has been designed and led by a partnership of organizations with the mission to work long term on a community college student success agenda. In four years, the initiative has grown to include 82 institutions in 15 states and has attracted 20 additional funders who, with Lumina, have made a total investment of nearly $100 million.

On campus, the initiative is focused on creating a culture of evidence, one in which data about student success—and failure—is gathered, analyzed, and used to identify problems and create new ways to address them, all with the goal of improving student outcomes. It makes the communities inside and outside the institution participants in the process, and it works to effect state and national policy changes that support a student-success agenda.

Achieving the Dream is now heading into its fifth year of admitting colleges into the initiative and is on the verge of a national expansion in 2010. In the three articles that follow, we look at its successes and challenges so far, learn about research on a key piece of federal student-success data, and hear from a national business leader about how our response to the economic and educational challenges of the 21st century will be as important as the response to the Panic of 1893 that helped lead to the creation of community colleges in the first place.
—Margaret Miller

Change Executive Editor

Achieving the Community-College Dream

by Carol Lincoln

Over the years, the board of trustees at San Jacinto Community College in Texas has spent a lot of time discussing how many students fill the college’s seats each term, in large part because enrollment helps determine state funding. But until 2007, they had never discussed what happened to these men and women after the first day of classes—whether they went on to complete even a single course, never mind to transfer or earn a certificate or degree.

That changed in early 2007, when the board chair, vice chair, and chancellor participated in a trustee institute run by the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at the University of Texas at Austin and sponsored by Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count. There they were confronted with a range of troubling national statistics on student success. For instance, just over half of full- and part-time freshman attending two-year colleges return for a second year, while a mere 36 percent earn a certificate or degree within six years. And at least 42 percent of first-year students at community colleges enroll in at least one developmental education class—even while research from Texas indicates that up to half of those taking remedial courses don’t complete them. But the hardest number to face was one of their own: According to the Achieving the Dream database—which allows colleges to compare their results with others around the country—just 12 percent of students at San Jacinto completed a certificate or degree, compared to a median 31 percent at other large community colleges in the West and Southwest.

The group returned to campus and, at a previously scheduled board meeting the next week, announced a 180-degree shift in focus. First, the chairman publicly acknowledged the dismal student retention and completion rates and vowed that things were going to change. Then the board moved to increase its yearly tuition hike by an additional dollar, with 100 percent of the proceeds directed toward student success initiatives on campus. The room broke into applause.

San Jacinto is not alone. After decades spent concentrating on open access, many community colleges across the U.S. are acknowledging the hard truth that the vast majority of students aren’t meeting their educational goals. So the colleges are making student success both an immediate and long-term priority.