Keeping up with the national college completion "agenda" can be tough. Foundations have created a messy mélange of strategies and organizations, often under the watchful eye of policy-minded state lawmakers, with the goal of getting more students to graduation.
To try to pull together some of those threads in a coherent way, community college leaders in five states have created statewide "student success centers." And that approach may soon spread.
The Kresge Foundation has provided start-up cash with three-year grants for the success centers in Michigan, Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and New Jersey. The foundation is now looking to fund three more, having recently released a request for proposals jointly with Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group that receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.
Caroline Altman Smith, a senior program officer for Kresge, said the goal is to knit together viable completion strategies in a central place in each state. The new hubs become places for both administrators and faculty members to share intelligence and bring ideas back to their campuses.
Kresge didn't come up with concept for student success centers. Smith said the idea was "bubbling up organically" in several states.
A recently released policy paper from Jobs for the Future tracks the genesis of the centers. The first step came when a "critical mass" of community colleges signed on to the completion-oriented reforms led by Achieving the Dream, a national organization, according to the paper.
"The colleges and their supporting associations came to believe that their hard work could be strengthened and amplified if there were some statewide, cross-college supports in place," the paper said, including common data sets and professional development opportunities.
That works for Achieving the Dream, said Carol Lincoln, a senior vice president for the group. The centers make up for a "missing structure" in each state, she said, and help to "spread lessons more deeply."
The Ohio center got off the ground last year. Ruth Silon, who taught English at Cuyahoga Community College for 34 years, is its director. "You have 23 separate cultures" at Ohio's 23 community colleges, Silon said. The center is trying to help create a "state culture" around college completion.
The five existing centers are all in states with relatively decentralized community college systems. Arkansas and Michigan were the first ones created. They're also the most extensive.
California could soon be in the mix. The state's 112 community colleges are somewhat autonomous. Observers said a state student success center in California could play a role in helping to coordinate the growing number of completion-oriented strategies that are occurring around the huge system.
Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, said community college officials in the state are discussing whether to apply for the Kresge grant.
"Our goal would be to set this up so that it's a resource for faculty," Lay said. There would be a payoff for administrators, too, he said. "We need to attention to metrics by senior leadership."
The Front Lines
The five success centers all have relationships with their state's community college associations. But they also have separate budgets, per Kresge's design, which keeps them independent. Small staffs of one or two full-time employees run the centers. They also have advisory boards.
Ideally, the centers will find more money through fund-raising and government grants. In Arkansas, for example, the center helped the state win a $15 million from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2011.
They also help foundations spot promising ideas within each state. Smith said the Michigan-based Kresge has leaned on the that state's center as an "intermediary" between foundation staff and community colleges.
"We can't have a relationship with all 28 of the colleges," she said.
Kay McClenney is a fan of the centers. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, said they can take completion strategies from Achieving the Dream or similar groups, like Completion by Design, and both broaden and deepen the impact of those approaches at the state level.
"The fact that they are close to home helps," she said.
There are critics of certain tenets of the college completion agenda. Performance-based state funding in particular tends to rankle some professors.
The student success centers, however, feature a prominent role for faculty members, more so than have some national conversations about student success.
The centers all "place special emphasis on engaging faculty in the leadership of reform efforts," said the Jobs for the Future paper, "so that reforms gain support and traction on the ground."
Ohio's success center has a particularly strong faculty focus. The center, like those in other states, hosts meetings for faculty members to trade notes and hear from outside experts.
Kathy Pittman, an English professor at Hocking College, a two-year institution located in rural Ohio, has attended workshops hosted by the state's center. Speakers who made an impact on her included officials from the Community College of Baltimore and Patrick Henry Community College, which is located in Virginia.
"We compare notes," she said. "It saves other colleges from having to jump through all the hoops."
Pittman also led a discussion at a center-sponsored symposium. She described for her peers how she teaches remedial English to fire science students. Many of her students already work in the field. So one way to increase their engagement, Pittman said, is by using reading material that relates to their work -- so-called "high-interest material."
That lesson can apply to instructors at other two-year colleges around the state, she said, even if they aren't teaching fire science students.
Pittman said the center has gotten a boost from Silon herself being well-steeped in teaching practices.
"She totally understands where faculty are coming from," Pittman said. "She's really done a good job of provoking conversations around the state."