By the time today’s infants are teenagers, the Lumina Foundation wants 60 percent of Americans to have higher education degrees or certificates. A noble goal, most agree, but one that won’t be met next week.
College strategic plans – generally titled “Vision (Insert Far-Off Year Here)” – set similar long-term objectives aiming to advance the completion agenda, add lab space or increase diversity. But progress is measured in years and decades, sometimes frustrating those laboring on the ground and seeing little day-to-day change. And for many community colleges, those goals involve huge gains in completion rates and many other measures -- gains that would be impossible to achieve in a year or two.
A two-year college serving the Rochester, N.Y., area might have a solution.
Monroe Community College has its own set of long-term aspirations, but has also started a series of modest but tangible 100-day projects to improve the college. The first task: streamline the application and enrollment process so that prospective students have to create one password instead of three.
No one is suggesting that institutions scrap their strategic plans. In fact, Monroe President Anne Kress sees the low-cost, incremental projects as a way to make progress toward those more ambitious goals.
“There are so many big-picture ideas we’re all working on,” she said. “We’re trying to improve our completion numbers, we’re trying to improve retention. When we looked at 100 Days to Innovation, we thought this would be perfect because it gives us a timeframe and it makes us think about these much bigger-picture ideas.”
Monroe’s provost pushed the idea last fall after hearing about it at a College Board meeting. Other administrators signed on and began considering which project to tackle first. Ideas had to either directly support Monroe's new strategic plan or advance the completion agenda.
College leaders selected the cumbersome application process, which requires prospective students to create three different passwords before they’re able to enroll, as the first project. While the password repetition makes some sense for administrative and security purposes, Kress said it frustrates prospective students who can’t remember which password is for which process. It's also burdensome for college employees who have to track down a confused applicant’s lost login information.
She fears some prospective students ultimately abandon their plans to attend Monroe out of frustration with the passwords, thus hampering the college’s goal to expand its reach and enrollment.
Now a team of employees is trying to figure out how to let students apply with only one phrase to remember. Led by Jeffrey Bartkovich, vice president of educational technology services, the team checks in with progress reports every 25 days and is on pace to have the process implemented when Day 100 rolls around on June 2.
The idea has had unexpected benefits. Administrators who are typically removed from the mechanics of the application process are learning about problems, Kress said, and staff members are seeing concrete ways in which they’re helping advance Monroe’s goals. And 100 days isn't that long, so officials can't just have meeting after meeting without getting things done.
But the project wasn’t as easy as it may sound. It's required cross-checks with departments across the college to make sure any changes wouldn’t make their lives harder, and twice-weekly meetings with campus leaders. Bartkovich plans to unveil a proposal in the coming days – giving employees and students a chance to weigh in with enough time to make adjustments before the June 2 deadline.
“It took us all by surprise how complex this was and that this was an entire institutional process,” Bartkovich said.
Monroe will select another 100-day project this summer, and one possibility is already in the works. The college wants to offer a one-credit class through community organizations designed to expose adults to college. By working with the Urban League or YWCA, Kress hopes to enroll nontraditional students who might have never pursued higher education but are intrigued by a program Monroe offers.
Specific projects like the password simplification or working with community groups, Kress said, are going to help Monroe achieve its longer-term plans.
“You have a strategic goal that says you need to improve institutional effectiveness and accountability. Everyone’s going to say that,” she said. “But what does that mean, and how do you break that down to a micro level? Otherwise it’s like throwing spaghetti against a wall and hoping something sticks and something improves.”