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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

But the real success story is that such initiatives are helping to close the achievement gaps between African-American and Hispanic students and their peers. According to preliminary data, over the last eight years the gap between African-American students and their Caucasian counterparts in all six courses with Achieving the Dream interventions has gone from -7.1 percent in 2001 and -17.6 percent in 2003 (just before joining Achieving the Dream) to a lag of just 3.6 percentage points in 2008. Further, the success-rate gap between Hispanic and Caucasian students, which rose from -0.5 percent in 2001 to -4.2 percent in 2003, reversed to an astounding +4 percent in 2008—meaning that Hispanic students actually outperformed their white peers last year.

Still, there have been a few bumps along the way at Valencia. The student success course was initially required of all students who placed into developmental classes in three disciplines—reading, writing, and math. The college planned to study the pilot and then expand it this fall, but when the school’s curriculum committee looked at the performance data, they didn’t agree that it showed a compelling difference with regard to student success. So the school has returned to the drawing board, refining its research and statistical procedures for this past fall’s classes, and postponing a decision on next steps until another summit is convened this year.

One sign that Valencia is truly undergoing systemic transformation is that it has been able to sustain changes and improvements even through leadership transitions at the vice presidential, faculty and staff levels—something that has proven a major challenge at other schools.

A number of other institutions are on the path towards broad-based change, such as Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, which started a program in which 40 faculty volunteers became student success coaches, working largely with developmental education students. While the program was successful, the college couldn’t maintain it at that level of faculty involvement. So the college went back to the drawing board and launched a counseling center with two full-time staff members. Now the college is reaching a much larger number of students in a sustainable way.

These stories demonstrate the progress that has been made in the first four years of Achieving the Dream, but they also make it clear that there is much more work to be done. One of the biggest challenges remaining for community colleges is to figure out how to further improve the developmental education experience for students, particularly when it comes to remedial math, which is by far the biggest stumbling block for the greatest number of people. They don’t yet have all the answers, but they know that they need at least to improve curricula and pedagogy and discover ways to shorten the amount of time spent in developmental education.

There are other challenges ahead. It’s one thing for colleges to work on student success issues for a couple of years and see some improvements and quite another to have student-outcomes analysis become an ongoing, permanent way of making decisions. The first group of Achieving the Dream colleges will finish their demonstration experience in June 2009, and they will need to find a way to sustain the work of systemic institutional transformation without extra resources from Achieving the Dream.

Meanwhile, since far more colleges have asked to join the program than can be accommodated, Achieving the Dream looks forward to bringing the collective wisdom it has amassed to more colleges and more states though a national expansion phase. Under the revised delivery model, new participants will absorb more of the costs themselves. The extent to which these institutions are ready and able to do this work without grant money from a private foundation remains to be seen.

There is no quick fix for the problems that face today’s community colleges. They need the long-term, sustained focus of college leadership, faculty, and state policy makers over the next decade or longer. The pathway to growing the number of students who finish what they start won’t be short or easy, but it’s the journey we must undertake.

Carol Lincoln is a senior program director at MDC, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and national director of Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count.