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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

Despite TCC’s relatively solid performance—the college was in the top 20 nationally for granting associate’s degrees in 2005-06, for example, and 11th in awards to African-American students—President Law has made doing better an institutional priority for everyone on campus. Since TCC joined the first round of Achieving the Dream in 2004, Law has talked so much about these goals—and about how student progress is everyone’s responsibility, from the president to professors to the campus janitors—that he jokes that some people now groan when he starts speaking. But on the plus side, almost everyone on campus can repeat his three-pronged mantra back to him.

This type of strong, committed leadership is critical to the process of institutional transformation. While the day-to-day work of programs such as Achieving the Dream must be undertaken by those working most closely with students in classrooms, it doesn’t go anywhere without active support from the top. When a president and other administrators fully embrace the agenda, it is safe for those inside the institution to study data and ask hard questions about student outcomes without fear of repercussions.

Law’s first act was to spearhead an overhaul of the college’s data system, to collect more and better information for strategic uses as opposed to merely meeting federal and state requirements. The college has made these data accessible to everyone who could possibly need and learn from them. An initiative called TCC Passport puts online all the data the college has collected on each student, including current schedule, midterm and final grades, graduation plans, and how many times he or she received counseling. There are also specific data portals for the Board of Trustees and community partners that facilitate their access to and use of such information.

Data analysis has resulted in new campus policies and practices over the last several years. In the past, every intervention the college offered was based on low GPA, but after looking at the research, administrators found that completion of courses was a much more accurate predictor of success. Specifically, 80 percent of students who dropped no more than one course in their first semester returned the next term.

So the college extended orientation from a half-day to a full day, added parent and family orientation sessions, provided extra tutors and labs in the classes where most first-year students were struggling, and installed early-warning signals that help professors and counselors intervene at the first signs of trouble. There’s also a brand-new “Learning Commons,” a comprehensive, integrated learning center that provides resources in math, science, and communications. In addition, the more than 2,800 first-time students who place into two or more remedial courses are required to take a “College Success” class that covers topics such as study skills and goal-setting, while all students except those who have completed a quarter or more of their degree program with a 2.0 overall GPA or better must complete an individual learning plan that maps goals and charts progress with a trained advisor.

Overall, the college’s high level of leadership and support is having effects. Students in the fall 2005 and 2006 cohorts who received intense advising and extra help successfully completed an average of 66.8 percent of their credit hours with a grade of A, B, or C, compared to 65.7 percent for those not in the intervention—a slight increase in percentage terms but significant in real numbers. In addition, the percentage of credit hours that the participants in the 2005 and 2006 Achieving the Dream cohorts withdrew from was 12 percent, versus 13.5 percent among those who did not take part. Most encouragingly, African-American students in the fall 2006 ATD cohort withdrew from only 9.5 percent of their credit hours, compared to 13.8 percent for African-American students who were not part of the cohort.

Leadership also can come directly from boards of trustees, whose members typically focus on issues such as facilities and finances but who can have a significant impact when they turn their attention to student success. That’s what has happened at San Jacinto College, which last year launched student-success-related programs large and small, from K-12 alignment initiatives to faculty training in collaborative learning—and even a redecorating project that’s replaced the college logo in the boardroom with artwork that says “Achieving Students’ Dreams” to remind everyone of the new focus.

A Culture of Evidence
In years past, decisions at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio were made the way they were at most community colleges, based on funding, anecdotes about student performance, or history. But starting with the college’s bid for reaccreditation with an Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) for the Higher Learning Commission in 2004 and after joining Achieving the Dream in 2005, there has been a shift on campus toward a culture of evidence. Now, key decisions—from setting educational strategies and allocating resources to scheduling classes and organizing student services—are grounded in data on student outcomes.

While information research (IR) and information technology (IT) capacity have been challenges for a number of our colleges, Cuyahoga had a fairly robust, four-person IR department in place, along with the ability to go back several decades with longitudinal data—the key to tracking student progress over time. As a result, the college could immediately take a long, hard look at its numbers.

One fact was immediately obvious: The fast-growing population of developmental education students was the least likely to successfully complete subsequent courses. In fall 2006, for example, 82 percent of incoming students placed into developmental math, while 58 percent placed into developmental English. Looking at data from a 1999 longitudinal cohort study, the college found that of those requiring developmental English only, 68 percent went on to complete college-level English; of those requiring developmental math, just 32 percent eventually completed college-level math; and of those requiring both developmental English and math, 40 percent went on to complete college-level English and 20 percent eventually completed college-level math. On the plus side, for those who did make it through college-level English, the graduation rate was twice as high as the mean for all students, and for those who made it through college-level math, it was more than three times higher.