Moving the Needle

June 1, 2010

AUSTIN, TEX. -- The major associations of community colleges all have recently endorsed the idea that two-year institutions need to focus more on retention and completion issues, and generally are in agreement on some of the steps they should take so greater shares of students achieve various goals. But how much progress is realistic to expect? And how much progress can take place in just a few years?

Data presented Monday here at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development suggest that meaningful gains are possible -- and are possible institutionwide, not just for a few pilot projects. The data are from some of the first community colleges in Achieving the Dream, a national program to help institutions use data to develop policies that will improve completion rates.

Byron McClenney, a project director for Achieving the Dream and a fellow at the Community College Leadership Program of the University of Texas at Austin, presented the results, and said that they were among the most powerful data to date showing the value of the Achieving the Dream approach.

Because Achieving the Dream encourages colleges to start their reforms with pilots, many of the more impressive results reported from the program have come from those experiments. But the results presented Monday were institutionwide comparisons on key retention points -- after pilots had been scaled up to cover entire institutions.

Consider results from three community colleges:

Shifts in Retention Rates, 2004 to 2009

College Fall to Spring Persistence, 2004 Fall to Spring Persistence, 2009 Fall to Fall Persistence, 2004 Fall to Fall Persistence, 2008
Broward Community College 75% 85% 58% 68%
Valencia Community College 79% 85% 60% 67%
Houston Community College 70% 75% 48% 54%

McClenney said that he didn't think the shifts documented should be seen as an end point, but he argued that they show that real gains are possible, especially since most of the progress took place only after years of experimentation. He cited a number of such policies that are now in place at these institutions and other Achieving the Dream participants: mandatory assessment and placement tests, mandatory study skills courses for those in need of remediation, mandatory orientation programs, and strictly enforced registration deadlines (so students can't enroll so late in a course that success is unlikely).

As he outlined these policies, he asked the audience members -- faculty and administrators from community colleges -- to raise their hands if they had adopted these policies, and most of the questions generated raised hands by only half of attendees, or an even smaller share. With apparent frustration, he said, "we're still debating at many institutions whether we can stop late registration."

The reason for the impatience, McClenney said, was that the statistics represent real students. The three community colleges he used as case studies have about 2,000 students enrolled who -- without the policy changes -- probably would have dropped out and missed a chance at earning a degree or certificate. "We need to think about the human beings involved," he said.

Another key point in McClenney's talk was that the steps being advocated by Achieving the Dream can shrink (or completely eliminate) achievement gaps between students from different racial and ethnic groups. While the kinds of measures advocated aren't race-specific, the impact may be greater with some minority groups. McClenney acknowledged that talking about such gaps makes many educators uncomfortable, but he said that an "equity agenda" should view these reforms as having the potential to eliminate these gaps.

He pointed to data from Valencia to back up his point. In 2004, before the various reforms were put in place, the passing rate of Latino students in "gateway courses" (those required to advance in a major or program of study) was 1.8 percent lower than that of white students, and the passing rate of black students was 13.4 percent lower. Today, black students' passing rate is only 5.1 percent lower than that of white students, while Latino passing rates exceed those of white students.

Other speakers at the session endorsed the data-driven approach as having the potential to bring about long-term shifts. Luzelma G. Canales, interim associate dean for community engagement at South Texas College, said that a series of data collection efforts helped the college identify areas where it needed to communicate better with local high schools about the meaning of being "college ready." The outcome is a 22 percent gain in the percentage of students who are college-ready in English and a 15 percent gain in mathematics.

"The use of evidence is a shift," she said. "We are so used to talking about what comes from the gut. We’re going to do this because somebody went to some conference, and they heard about something that people said was working. But no matter how much we invested in trying to improve student success, the needle never moved."

Nolan Browning, vice president of academic and student development at Patrick Henry Community College, in Virginia, said that data also enable colleges to intelligently "make a big bet" on a specific strategy. In his college's case, that policy was "active learning," replacing lecture courses with those in which students were more engaged in classroom activities and a variety of activities. Retention rates are up, he said.

Similarly, Brad Phillips, executive director of the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, said he saw the long-term success levels in Achieving the Dream as evidence that colleges could get the information they need to focus their reforms. A college might find, for example, that a given initiative increased retention or graduation rates by 1 percentage point, while costing millions of dollars. But the question, Phillips said, isn't which reforms just have a statistically significant impact, but which ones have "practical importance." The key is to move from "boutique interventions," which may work for a small group, to those that can "scale up for the institution."

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