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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

That is the ultimate aim of Achieving the Dream, which is now working with 82 community colleges in 15 states to create a “culture of evidence” on campus, in which hard data drive decisions about which strategies will be adopted to improve student outcomes. These campuses are having courageous conversations in which faculty, staff, presidents and trustees accept the data, take accountability for the problems in the system, recognize the scale of the challenges they face, and press ahead on solutions.

The initiative is the creation of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, the nation’s largest foundation focused solely on higher education. In creating Achieving the Dream, Lumina gathered a group of national partner organizations—including the CCLP at UT-Austin, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Jobs for the Future, social-policy research group MDRC, and community-engagement specialists Public Agenda—to design and develop the initiative. MDC, Inc., a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based nonprofit that focuses on innovative approaches to education and workforce issues, is the group’s managing partner.

The nation’s 1,200 community colleges educate nearly half the undergraduates in this country. They provide a crucial gateway to postsecondary education for many low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students. But fewer than half of community college students meet their educational goals, and that number is even lower for disadvantaged students. Achieving the Dream has focused on colleges with higher-than-usual enrollments of low-income students and students of color; according to the Achieving the Dream database, while 70 percent of first-time students who enrolled in 2002 returned for a second semester, fewer than a quarter were around at ATD institutions two years later.

Community colleges must find a way to help more students develop the skills and credentials they need for the 21st-century global economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 percent of the 18.9 million new jobs that will be created by 2014 will require some postsecondary education. And demographers are emphatic that the underserved students who are the prime focus of Achieving the Dream—particularly fast-growing populations of immigrants—are the key to filling these openings, which will require advanced technical skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. Otherwise, those jobs will disappear or move abroad.

In 2004, Change published an issue entitled “Community Colleges in a Perfect Storm” that looked at many of these difficult, pressing issues. Four years later, a growing number of institutions are emerging from the tempest thanks to initiatives such as Achieving the Dream. The project is helping institutions create systems that track and analyze data as a way of identifying problems, as well as helping students survive—and thrive—by pinpointing populations that currently have low levels of success, developing strategies to improve outcomes, and measuring the results.

Thanks to interventions such as instructional innovations, improving the first-year experience, beefing up advising programs, and creating early-alert systems, more community college students are achieving their goals and those set by the initiative: the completion of remedial work that leads to success in credit-bearing courses; completion of the courses attempted with a grade of C or better; persistence from one semester to the next; and, ultimately, earning a degree or certificate.

And some participating colleges also are making significant progress toward Achieving the Dream’s core goal: eliminating the well-documented achievement gaps between traditionally underserved students and their classmates. When colleges break down data by factors such as race, gender, and age, they often have to face serious problems of which they may only have been vaguely aware before—that Hispanic students are not faring as well as others, for instance, or that developmental math is the most failed course on campus. More often than not, the discovery process brings up difficult questions about teaching, learning, race, equity and so much more. This is especially hard for colleges that have been winning all sorts of awards and grants and are then left wondering, “How can it be that these are our numbers?”

Some important lessons have emerged from what is now a national learning community representing some 860,000 students. First and foremost is the importance of the four principles of the Achieving the Dream model for institutional improvement: committed leadership, creating a culture of evidence to improve programs and services, promoting broad engagement within the institutions and with the outside community, and moving toward systemic institutional change.

Here are some examples of what is taking place on the front lines.

William D. Law, Jr., president of Tallahassee Community College (TCC) in Florida, never misses an opportunity to emphasize how important the student success agenda is, both to him personally and to the institution. In fact, nearly every time he stands at a podium, he begins by talking about three things:

1. The college’s definition of student success, which is that students finish what they start.

2. The idea that if your job is not to teach, then it is to help students get to class in the best condition for learning—which translates into good registration systems, childcare, parking, substantial financial aid, and a well-maintained campus.

3. The notion that access changes students’ self-perception but degrees and certificates change their lives.