If an incoming community college student were asked right off the bat to pledge to complete a degree or credential, in a moment of truth, would that student think of his promise before transferring or dropping out? What if thousands of others signed the same pledge? What if faculty and the president had signed one promising to do all they could to help the student complete?
There’s no telling yet, but if all those components come together the way pledge architects hope they do, completion rates will be on the upswing within a couple of years. By that time, the first cohort of students to sign such a pledge will be due to earn associate degrees.
The pledges are part of the commitment that six national community college organizations made  in April 2010 to boost student completion rates by 50 percent during the next decade. About a year after those groups signed their own "Call to Action,"  three of them -- the American Association of Community Colleges, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society -- drafted versions to take to presidents, faculty and staff , and students, respectively.
Organizers from Phi Theta Kappa, the only student group in that delegation, don’t pretend to believe that the simple act of signing something will persuade any student to see his education through -- it’s what comes before and after the signature that could make the real difference. Ideally, that includes lots of support -- from fellow students, faculty, staff and presidents.
“It’s kind of dreadful that we’ve never taken the time to explain to [students] that completion matters,” said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa. “I have to sit sometimes and just think, why did it take us so long?”
Collectively, the Phi Theta Kappa chapters' initiative is known as the Community College Commitment Corps . About 65 colleges  have hosted pledge-signing events so far. Each campus can tailor the project to its particular needs or goals; for example, the president of Pueblo Community College established a $500 scholarship to be given away via a drawing at a pledge-signing event on the Colorado campus, while Lone Star College's Kingwood campus, in Texas, is focusing on identifying the most at-risk students as well as those who plan to transfer before graduating, so the local Phi Theta Kappa chapter can intervene before the pledge is broken.
But students say the key transaction to take place at the signings is the exchange of information between those who are gathering the signatures and those who are signing. The main goal there is to forge connections -- between the pledger and the pledgee, but also between the pledger and the various available resources that make a commitment more likely to be fulfilled. Those connections might include workshops on time management, student-to-student mentorship, or simple information on the clubs and groups that can better bind a student to the campus.
Heather Thomas, a student at Mesa Community College, in Arizona, and president of the Phi Theta Kappa chapter there, believes emphatically that the pledges will work because they involve students helping students. “Seeing us out there is really what’s making people be more receptive. It’s not so much the call from the president and all that,” she said. When a student’s peer -- or friend -- explains to her that an associate degree can be a lifesaver if a transfer to a university doesn’t work out, or that she’s giving up $400,000 over her lifetime by not obtaining that credential, it resonates, Thomas said. “I think that really makes them stop and think, ‘Wow, that’s true.’ ”
Risley said Phi Theta Kappa has started talking about ways to assess the success of the Community College Completion Corps, but isn't yet sure how that will work. That task will probably be complicated by the fact that not all of the chapters are even reporting when they hold events, much less how many students signed the pledge and who they are.
The group is still gathering signatures, but about 1,500 Mesa students so far (of 25,000 total) have added their names to the pledge, which is quite public -- it’s painted onto a big wall in the library lobby. Thomas acknowledged that the signatures don’t technically bind the students to anything. But when the encouragement to stick with it is coming from students who have been through the initial year of college, Thomas believes, the pledge becomes meaningful to those who take it.
“The only thing we’re offering students is a button,” Thomas said. “They don’t have to stop at the wall. So I really feel that the people that do go up there and sign their name are really trying to make a commitment.”
On Monday all 14 of Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College campuses participated in a signing day. With three hours left to go in the event, and with nine of the campuses reporting numbers, more than 2,100 students had pledged to complete. The entire system serves nearly 200,000 students.
Duane Oakes, the Mesa Community College chapter’s adviser and faculty director of the college’s Center for Service Learning, isn’t under any illusions about the breakability of a promise, or the extent to which signing a pledge will keep a student from dropping out. “I think the truth is, you’ll never know,” he said. “But I think anything we can do that would help make a student more aware of the importance of completion -- I think that is what we want.”
Craig Hale, president of the chapter at Ivy Tech's Richmond campus, helped gather more than 600 signatures on his campus Monday, and will continue the work throughout the week. To keep students engaged in the pledge, the group is planning potential giveaways and events: popcorn in about a month when commitment starts to wane, and something else around midterms. Hale also wants to have similar pledge-gathering events at the beginning of every semester, indefinitely.
“When a student signs the pledge, they are committing to themselves, to their completion,” Hale said. “Keeping the student’s pledge in the forefront of their mind throughout the semester and years will renew the individual commitment.”