Moving to Scale

Gates and Hewlett Foundations move to expand successful program for changing community college experience for at-risk students -- with hopes of even broader expansion down the road.
March 9, 2010

PHOENIX -- For colleges to succeed at graduating more students, institutions will have to embrace "transformational change," and if they do, they may get some help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That was the message from Hilary Pennington, who directs the foundation's efforts in higher education, in a talk Monday to college presidents gathered at the annual meeting here of the American Council on Education.

In the talk, Pennington mixed not-so-subtle criticism of the policies of many traditional colleges with a concrete example of the foundation's willingness to back dramatic change in the way education is delivered. She announced that the Gates Foundation, along with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, will provide $3.6 million to expand Cabrillo College's Academy for College Excellence to allow the effort to be used at three other (unidentified) community colleges in California and one in another state.

The academy concept, similar in some ways to the ideas behind the new community college being planned by the City University of New York, involves more direction and fewer choices for students, with the goal of getting them into college-level work right away and earning an associate degree in a reasonably speedy fashion. In an interview, Pennington said that foundation officials increasingly believe that "less choice, more structure" may translate into the kind of revolutionary change the foundation wants to see in community colleges.

Indeed the size of the grant announced Monday (enormous to many community colleges, but not in relation to some of the larger Gates grants) may be less significant than what it says about the growing conviction of the Gates Foundation that this may be the road to the kinds of reforms it wants to replicate.

The Gates approach is to fund experiments with an emphasis on then taking successful experiments and trying to "scale them up" so that they can promote change nationally or internationally. While the foundation isn't at the point of saying that the Cabrillo approach or the similar effort at CUNY is the way to go nationally, the foundation sees enough promise to enlarge the group of colleges trying this method.

"Our hope is that all the investments we are making will help us know in a three- to four-year period what the big bets will be," Pennington said.

Of the Cabrillo program, she said, "we think the way it structures the educational experience is scalable. It's a very intentional design that takes a lot of choice out” of the process and offers students "a highly structured series of courses" with "very creative and high-end instruction."

Cabrillo's academy involves a series of features, many of which are also used in reform efforts elsewhere: learning communities (where students take multiple courses together so they move through as a cohort), the replacement of lectures with interactive instruction, "integrated" courses in which all the instructors are aware of what is going on in the other courses (both to link course work and to coordinate assignments so students aren't overwhelmed with big assignments in all classes at the same time), and required courses designed to make up for areas where students may not be prepared and to teach study skills.

The underlying philosophy behind the academy is that, however good individual instruction may be in a given remedial course at a community college, the odds will remain stacked against students advancing to the college-credit level if they aren't given a clear and fast path to a degree. The hope is that, by taking courses at the same time in an organized manner, more students will escape what Pennington called the "Bermuda triangle" of higher education -- remedial courses in which students enroll, never to be seen again.

The Gates/Hewlett announcement noted evidence that the Cabrillo efforts are working. The Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University recently finished an analysis of academy students in nine cohorts from 2003 to 2007. While more than two-thirds of the academy students were at least two levels below college-level work in math or reading, 80 percent were passing associate degree level work in English within two years. That sort of advancement is rare for remedial students.

Looking for Alternatives

In her talk to the college presidents, Pennington cited the incredible economic pressures facing colleges and their leaders these days. But when she discussed programs that the Gates Foundation admires, they were all nontraditional efforts at nontraditional institutions.

And Pennington said it was key to combat the idea that traditional institutions could continue to focus on traditional students alone. "Three-quarters of college students today fit the definition of the 'nontraditional' student," she said. "They work to support themselves in addition to taking classes; they have families of their own; they cycle in and out of school,s accumulating credit but rarely graduating. It is no longer appropriate to refer to these students as 'nontraditional.' At the foundation, we call them 'the new majority.' "

So who is serving this new majority? Pennington cited Western Governors University, which focuses on competencies rather than seat time, and offers low-cost, online instruction. And she cited the way the U.S. military has worked with colleges to promote the transfer of credits among institutions -- a key factor for students in the military, who move frequently and can't be expected to finish a degree at the institution where they first enrolled.

But this attitude, she said, is in contrast to what "new majority" students experience in much of higher education. "Students move around. They might start at a trade school, switch to a community college, cycle in and out of school while working and maybe end up at a four-year institution. But as you know, they often can’t take their credits with them," she said. "Students tell us that this is one of the biggest barriers to completion that they face: their credits -- earned and paid for -- are not universally accepted at other schools. Too often changing schools means starting over -- losing money, time and self-esteem."

Pennington also noted, with a mix of admiration and concern, the success of another kind of nontraditional institution at reaching "new majority" students. She noted that "for better or for worse," for-profit higher education attracts many more of these students than do other institutions. She noted that for-profit higher education is known for "flexible, student-centered education." But she also noted the higher cost of attending these institutions, compared to community colleges and other public institutions.

"When we ran the numbers in 2007, before the recent spike in community college enrollments, they showed that if the double digit annual growth rates of for-profits continue, for-profit institutions will educate the majority of this country’s low-income students within 10 years," she said. "Is this the kind of future we want, in which higher cost for-profits educate our lowest-income students, and public institutions, and the privates, educate our middle and upper income students?"

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