AUSTIN, TEX. -- Once a year, Odessa College gives away a new Ford Mustang to a student selected from among those who have met certain goals for attendance, course completion, academic achievement and leadership.
Giving away a car -- as the rural Texas community college does -- is a lot flashier than just naming students to the dean's list. That is precisely the point. The college's president, Greg Williams, is trying to emphasize the importance of completion, not just taking courses and hoping for the best; of encouraging students to have specific strategies to complete a certificate or associate degree.
Williams described his strategy here at the annual meeting  of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, one of the largest annual gatherings each year of community college educators. The "completion agenda" -- broadly the effort endorsed by the Obama administration, major foundations and others to focus on degree and certificate attainment -- was much in evidence here. Williams was among those presidents talking about a range of efforts to grab students' attention and change their thinking about finishing up.
But the ongoing economic downturn was also much discussed here -- as one reason why college completion is important to students, but also for the budget realities that may limit colleges' ability to focus on completion. And even as community college officials increasingly pledge to adopt reforms to encourage a focus on completion, speakers here talked about backsliding.
Williams of Odessa described a series of efforts -- beyond the car giveaway -- to improve student success at Odessa. The tutoring center was redesigned to be more inviting. A student success course was started. Faculty members are now required to record attendance. And four coaches were hired to help students with both academic and life issues that may be hindering their progress.
Robert Exley, president of Snead State Community College, in Alabama, said that it is time for community college educators to ask themselves, "Do you really value the associate degree?" He said that they should, but that far too many treat any enrollment in a community college as enough of a good thing not to worry about those who don't complete.
He used a term commonly used to criticize big-time athletes who quit college for the pros to mock community colleges that are satisfied with "one-and-done transfer students."
Exley said that college presidents need to shift budgets to show that they care about completion. He recently moved funds from efforts to promote civic engagement and service learning to create a large student success team. Also, he is shifting the way the college distributes $1.4 million in tuition waivers it receives from Alabama each year. All students are asked about their plans, and the tuition waivers will be provided only to those "who plan on graduating."
Officials here stressed that they were not opposed to transfer to four-year colleges -- and in fact were thrilled when their graduates did so. But they stressed that too many students think they will enroll and never do, and that an associate degree or certificate provides key credentials for students -- whatever their future plans.
John E. Roueche, the Sid W. Richardson Chair in Community College Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, said that he senses a shift in some campus policies to encourage completion. For instance, he asked the audience for a show of hands on how many of their institutions require orientation programs, and well over half raised their hands. He note that this represented "a big change" from just a few years ago, when required orientations were rare at community colleges.
Similarly, he said that more and more community colleges are reconsidering letting students register for courses well after they have started, a leniency that rarely results in students learning what they need to pass. Roueche said that "permissiveness about late registration is the most counterproductive policy around student success ever thought of by college administrators."
But Roueche warned that he is seeing colleges that say they are adopting the right policies, but that have left so much wiggle room that they haven't really made the needed changes.
For instance, he said research shows that community colleges are more likely to encourage graduation if they require not only assessment of new students, but placement for them -- so those identified as needing remedial instruction receive it immediately. While most college leaders agree with the concept, "we're finding a lot of slippage around placement," he said.
He cited a college whose officials recently told him it had mandatory placement. When he asked what this meant, Roueche said, college leaders explained that students couldn't take more than 15 credits of college-level work before taking the remedial courses they needed. This isn't mandatory placement, Roueche said. "What 15 credits of college courses don't require basic reading, writing and mathematics" of the sort someone in need of remedial education can't do?
And then there is the matter of budgets. Williams, of Odessa, said that Texas legislators have this year been discussing the idea of basing part of community colleges' budgets on "momentum points." The idea is that colleges should be rewarded for helping students achieve certain milestones, such as finishing certain numbers of credits, finishing remedial courses, earning a degree and so forth -- and punished if they fail to move students to these points.
Williams said that he and his fellow community college presidents support the idea. But he noted that the colleges are looking at big cuts in their budgets -- at a time that enrollments are up. And he said that any cuts for failing to meet "momentum points" right now would just hurt students.
"It just doesn't make sense to us when we are facing budget cuts, when we could be down over 20 percent, that we would start a program that would take another 10 percent of our funding and allow us to compete for some of it" through good scores on various momentum point categories, Williams said.
"We get student success," he said. "But we believe it should be based on additional funding."
In the near term, Williams said, that is unlikely.