Faculty First on Completion

Faculty-led reforms may be the best way to improve graduation rates, according to Achieving the Dream, which is working to give adjunct faculty members a seat at the table.

February 25, 2016

ATLANTA -- Lack of faculty buy-in often is described as a reason why college completion efforts fail to take hold at some campuses.

Yet having college administrators successfully sell a foundation-backed initiative to faculty members isn’t the best way to improve graduation rates, according to Achieving the Dream, a completion-oriented group that is holding its annual meeting here this week.

Faculty-led reforms work best, according to the nonprofit group.

“They’re really the central players in improving our student learning outcomes,” said Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream’s relatively new president and CEO, who recently wrapped up a long stint as president of Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Community College. “We can’t leave them out of this conversation.”

Stout was speaking Wednesday, just before a featured session at the meeting, which more than 2,000 people are attending. The session included five faculty members, including an adjunct professor, who described the lead role faculty members played in creating and running completion-related programs at their institutions.

“There’s a shift in adjunct faculty being included in these conversations,” Patricia M. Parker, a panelist and a mathematics professor at Germanna Community College, which is located in Virginia, said in an interview. But she added that “not all colleges embrace what they have.”

Karen Harding-Tasca, an adjunct professor in the reading department at Montgomery County, also participated in the panel on Wednesday. She described how her college adopted the Reading Apprenticeship Program, a faculty-led, national effort that seeks to help instructors teach reading across disciplines.

“I wanted a seat at the table,” said Harding-Tasca. “These programs are phenomenal for helping students.”

Since 2004, Achieving the Dream has collaborated with a wide range of people at community colleges, including teams of faculty members and various administrators, to help encourage the use of evidence-backed methods to improve student success.

Yet Stout said in an interview that faculty members haven’t played a strong enough role in the work. “The ripple effect didn’t happen,” she said.

The group is seeking to change that, Stout said. This week Achieving the Dream moved to make teaching and learning a more explicit part of its “organizational change” model, with a goal of encouraging faculty members to lead student success-related changes on their campuses. The group also announced an initiative to engage adjunct faculty members in student-success programs and to give those instructors leadership opportunities.

“If we’re really going to accelerate our work,” Stout said, “we have to have the faculty with us.”

Funding and Team Efforts

Even when the college completion agenda does improve graduation rates, faculty members often bridle at top-down edicts or become skeptical about the large number of foundation grants on completion that college presidents sometimes chase -- so-called initiative fatigue.

City Colleges of Chicago, for example, has more than doubled its low graduation rates during the five years that Cheryl Hyman has led the system. As chancellor, Hyman made completion the system’s top priority.

While the campaign is working, faculty members recently voted no confidence in her, in part because of a completion-related move to increase tuition rates for part-time students -- to encourage students to take more credits. Program consolidations also have been a concern for faculty members at City Colleges.

Many experts consider Kingsborough Community College to be a leader in the college completion movement, in part because of its learning communities, which create a smaller, more personal experience for students.

Faculty played a leadership role in that work from the beginning, said Janine Graziano, a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Kingsborough, which is part of the City University of New York system and is located in the Bronx.

“It’s always a collegewide team effort,” she said, adding that faculty “can be a driving force for change. But only with administrative support.”

Patrick Henry Community College, which is located in rural Virginia, signed on with Achieving the Dream more than a decade ago. Data showed that the college had a problem with student engagement, so it switched from a lecture model to one of cooperative learning, in which students work together and are dependent on each other.

The program has been successful, and has helped to close achievement gaps between white and black students. It also has helped to improve developmental education completion rates.

Joyce Staples, a professor of English at Patrick Henry, said during the panel that the program took off in part because faculty members saw evidence it was needed and that it could work. And college leaders found funding for the program, she said, a hard feat at most community colleges, which tend to be cash-strapped.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” said Staples.

Likewise, faculty members at the college know from the beginning that they are required to use the cooperative approach, she said. They see it on job listings even before they apply to work at the college, and their performance with cooperative learning is part of faculty members’ evaluations. “So there are no surprises,” she said.

Even so, not all faculty members were fans of the program. But that has changed over time, according to Staples.

“Some came over to the light side. Some stayed in the dark,” she said. “But guess what? They retired.”

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