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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

The analysis should lead policymakers to ask an important policy-related question: If going full-time is more likely to result in completion, policy changes that promote such a shift might be a powerful lever for helping institutions increase student success rates. How can states motivate a segment of the part-time student population, particularly low-income younger students with fewer family responsibilities, to stretch and take a full-time load? The analysis might also stimulate questions about Texas: Is there something about Texas policies and practices that can be instructive for other states, or is there something amiss with the Texas data? Presenting and assessing the data may raise more questions than answers, but they are frequently the right questions to be probing.

Another important variation in student performance, corroborated by the six states’ data analyses, is in the relative success of younger versus older students. In general, traditional-age students (22 and under) were much more likely to be successful than their older counterparts: Across the states, lower success rates for older students of ten percentage points or more were typical. However, North Carolina provides an important counter-example. That state has achieved substantially higher graduation and transfer rates with older students—a near-even 46 percent versus 50 percent for younger students—compared to rates between 21 and 35 percent in the other five work-group states.

Why is North Carolina more successful with older, mostly working students? What can other states learn from North Carolina’s institutional practices and state policies for this demographic group? The state’s community college system was designed to provide nontraditional-age students with technical and vocational training: almost half of community college students are 23 and older, compared to less than a quarter in most other states. Perhaps the strong links to local industry make a difference; perhaps North Carolina’s institutions have found some alternative ways to structure career-related programs for non-traditional students. Again, the data analysis prompts important questions—and can lead states and institutions toward new and more effective approaches.

The willingness of the six pilot states to look at their data in new ways provoked these energetic discussions within the group about the success rates of part-time students and the variation in success rates of older and younger students (see Table 5). By breaking down their analyses in ways that identify vulnerable student populations, such as part-time developmental education students, the states are well positioned to use this new information to suggest targeted institutional and policy actions that can address performance gaps.

Table 5: Success Rate by Age Group

Benchmarking Performance as a Way to Assess—and Improve—Policies
Not surprisingly, the more a state does to encourage behavior in certain directions, the more it drives institutions and students to follow those paths. When it comes to policy impact on student success and institutional outcomes, the benchmarking that the work-group states are engaged in provides material for rich cross-state comparisons, contrasts, and lessons.

The variation of transfer patterns that has emerged from the six states’ data and analyses is a good case in point. In Texas, for example, state policy encourages community college students to transfer to four-year colleges after completing a general education core curriculum and before graduating. Students who finish an approved 42-48 credit curriculum are guaranteed transfer of all credits to any four-year university in the state. As a result,25 percent of all incoming students opt to move to four-year schools before earning a degree compared to 14% in North Carolina and Connecticut, the next highest states.

In Florida, unlike Texas, several state policies ease the transfer process for students who earn an associate of arts degree first, guaranteeing admission as a junior into the state university system and many private colleges. Additionally, a good number of Florida’s community colleges offer bachelors and other advanced degree programs on site, further paving the way to higher credentials. Thus, it’s not surprising that Florida has the highest rate of students who transfer after earning an associate’s degree, at 69 percent, and one of the lowest rates of students transferring before earning a degree (7%).

The Achieving the Dream cross-state data work group has ambitious plans for the coming years. At least five more states—South Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Washington—will join the group, which will continue to refine data measures and collection. For instance, each state will track placement test data so that student performance can be assessed by what research has shown to be the most significant predictor of college success—the academic readiness of incoming students.

Going forward, Achieving the Dream will be testing and working to incorporate into state performance measurement systems a more elaborate set of intermediate success measures to help determine whether community college students in their first two years are on track to earn a credential or transfer. These measures include:

• the completion of remedial coursework by developmental education students;
• enrollment in and completion of first college-level math and English courses;
• pass rates in both remedial and college-level courses; and
• continuous enrollment from year to year and term to term.

Perhaps most important, the group has committed to annual tracking of intermediate and final outcomes, starting from and benchmarking against 2002 baseline data.