The college completion agenda has stalled. A decade in, a smaller percentage of first-time students are earning a degree or certificate.
It’s not for want of trying. Colleges have launched myriad programs aimed at ensuring students earn more college credits and degrees. We have rethought developmental education, revamped student services, bolstered tutoring and academic counseling, and launched student learning centers.
Yet it turns out that a piece-by-piece approach is not what benefits the largest number of our students. Many colleges have not been able to fully integrate their efforts across an entire campus or system. Community college leaders are recognizing that isolated efforts -- no matter how well intentioned -- will fail to comprehensively alter the institutional culture if not designed to move to scale from their inception.
This is consistent with a conclusion of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, just out this year. Pathways reforms -- often referred to as either “structured” or “guided” pathways -- have evolved from a solid base of research on what works, according to authors Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins. But what often is missing is cohesion and integration. They call on colleges to “undertake a more fundamental rethinking of their organization and culture."
The current generation of pathways reforms has become the strategy of choice to address longstanding problems of completion, but many of these efforts suffer from the same omissions.
Pathways efforts include several key elements that help students gain traction toward degrees. Students typically receive orientation that includes an assessment of their career interests and academic and noncognitive needs. They choose and enter streamlined, coherent academic programs organized around specific program pathways -- a set of courses that meet academic requirements across a broad discipline grouping such as health sciences, business or education -- with clear learning goals aligned with further education and/or a career. Students’ routes through college have a mapped-out design, with course requirements made clear and visible. Pathways efforts also provide intensive student supports, such as academic advising and career counseling, and monitor student progress, providing frequent and customized feedback to learners.
Like the hodgepodge of pilot programs in previous rounds of community college improvement, these efforts won’t produce systemic change unless they are designed in an integrated, holistic way and colleges make the commitment to implement them at scale. Today, experts who have studied these initiatives around the country suggest that only a handful of campuses have introduced pathways efforts that are truly comprehensive.
The vast majority of these initiatives “are pathways in name only,” says Michael Collins of Jobs for the Future (JFF), an organization that has been studying pathways efforts through its role in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Completion by Design initiative. “All too often, what’s missing is an overarching vision that weaves together multiple interventions. Organizational culture change and holistic integration of programs must be at the heart of pathways.”
As Kay McClenney, senior adviser to the American Association of Community Colleges, observed, “There are some colleges that have mapped programs. But there is still so much work to be done. They still must grapple with questions about what their faculty recommend as the appropriate core courses. They need their faculty to determine the right math for their programs. They need to embed advising in the pathways. They need to integrate student supports so they are comprehensive and inescapable. They need to ask how to incorporate applied learning and co-curricular experiences.”
In other words, this takes years of work. A decade of experience shows that institutions that don’t focus on complete transformation see only short-term progress and find themselves far from achieving desired outcomes.
At my college, Davidson County Community College, we have learned through our participation in Completion by Design that effective pathways programs engage every part of campus -- including leadership, admissions, financial aid, registration, full and part-time faculty, student supports, and communications -- to ensure that every student benefits. The programs make sense to the students, and faculty and staff work collectively to support student success.
We also have partnered with our state colleagues to implement policies that support the success we are achieving at DCCC. North Carolina’s new multiple-measures placement policy, for example, allowed us to enroll students in college-level courses with instructional supports in ways that we believed would be more effective than our prior approach to developmental education. Similarly, the state’s new Comprehensive Articulation Agreement pushes colleges to design transfer pathways with clearly defined goals, courses guaranteed to transfer, alignment to university requirements and built-in guidance and advising.
As part of a new national task force on building pathways to credentials, my colleagues in the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future believe it is absolutely critical for institutions to create a vision of systematic, total transformation. Moreover, we must bring state partners with us, because policy (and funding) can make the difference between amplifying or undermining campus reform efforts.
The trust is made up of leaders from colleges and state systems. Together, we are exploring the state and federal policy levers that can help spread pathways reforms from a handful of colleges to the majority of colleges. We also will seek out ideas within the field on key policy issues, such as how to engage as leaders in institutional reform, how to equip our college leaders with change management skills, using incentives and improved financial aid to better support students, and ensuring that the pathways we build are based on what makes sense to students, rather than being dictated by the incongruities in federal education and workforce policy.
Community colleges have a great opportunity to redefine pathways from a host of successful pilots into a holistic, integrated program of transformation for our colleges to better serve 21st-century students. Experts point to evidence emerging from colleges such as the City Colleges of Chicago and the City University of New York.
CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program emphasizes enriched academic, financial and personal supports including comprehensive and personalized advisement, career counseling, tutoring, tuition waivers, transportation aid, and additional financial assistance to defray the cost of textbooks. A study completed last year by the research group MDRC found that after three years, ASAP has nearly doubled the percentage of developmental education students who have completed an associate degree: 40 percent of the study’s program group had received a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group.
New pathways project grants recently announced by the American Association of Community Colleges aim to expand holistic pathways efforts even further. AACC will provide support, training and networking opportunities to 30 colleges already progressing on a pathways student success agenda with the goal of deepening their efforts and creating a model for the level of change management and leadership required. As these and other efforts take root, let’s make sure we don’t settle for reforms that are pathways in name only.
Mary Rittling is president of Davidson County Community College. She serves as the chair of the Building Pathways to Credentials Task Force of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success, a new initiative led by Jobs for the Future to advance state policy improvements for community colleges.
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Submitted by Tim Slottow on September 15, 2015 - 3:00am
As president of University of Phoenix, I am instinctively guided to support the principles of greater access to, and better analysis of, data and information. That holds particularly true in the case of data that can help prospective students make informed choices about higher education.
So the White House’s newly released College Scorecard -- and its attendant torrent of new data on colleges -- should be a welcome move. It purports to contain a variety of information that assesses institutions on important metrics, including graduation rates and the income of graduates.
It is no secret, however, that the Scorecard has attracted widespread criticism, not least from my colleagues at large public universities, whose concerns I share regarding broader methodological flaws in it -- particularly the failure to include data on students who did not receive Title IV funds (data currently unavailable to the department under federal law). And even the data about Title IV recipients presents major challenges. They paint a skewed view of graduation rates that I believe does a particular disservice to students and prospective working adult learners -- the very people this tool should help.
Just taking University of Phoenix as an example, there is much for which my university can be proud. The data released includes findings ranking it sixth in the nation amongst large, private institutions (more than 15,000 students) in terms of the income of its graduates (and 24th among all large institutions, public and private). This adds to our institution’s latest draft three-year cohort default rate of 13.6, which is comparable to the national average.
But consider the methodology behind the graduation rates that the Scorecard cites -- arguably the most problematic flaw underlying it. For years now the U.S. Department of Education has relied on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rates, which reflect only first-time, full-time undergraduate students. By any measure, the student population of America is more diverse than those who attend college full-time and complete it in a single shot. At the University of Phoenix, 60 percent of students in 2014 were first generation, and 76 percent were working -- 67 percent with dependents. These are the type of students labeled “nontraditional” by a Department of Education that has often talked of empowering them.
Yet for the purposes of the department’s graduation rates, these nontraditional students are effectively invisible, uncounted. In 2014, University of Phoenix’s institutional graduation rate for students with bachelor’s degrees was 42 percent. The department’s new Scorecard puts that figure at 20 percent. Our institutional rates demonstrate a higher rate of student success while IPEDS provides an incomplete picture of the university’s performance. In 2014, only 9.3 percent of my university’s students were first-time, full-time students as defined by IPEDS.
These graduation data would be troubling enough were it not for the fact that they are misinforming the same students that the Department of Education claims to be helping. For our graduates, the refusal to accurately calculate these data cheapens their legitimate and hard-earned academic achievements.
Reporting on the Scorecard, National Public Radio suggested that “what the government released … isn’t a scorecard at all -- it’s a data dump of epic proportions.” That is a correct assessment that speaks to the crux of the problem. More data, in this case, is not better. In open phone calls with reporters, department officials have acknowledged the limitations of their data, seemingly citing that very acknowledgment as license to publish them anyway. Yet no such acknowledgment is made clearly on the new Scorecard’s website, where students will access the information to make their decisions.
Now that the floodgate of institutional data has been opened, however, it is incumbent on all of us to improve it, contextualize it and help interpret it so prospective students can be appropriately informed by it. Responding to the Scorecard, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called for “Congress through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to support a student-level data system for persistence, transfer, graduation and employment/income information to provide more complete data for all institutions.”
The University of Phoenix has long supported these principles and objectives -- not just in pushing for more complete data but also in making clear that the standards must be applied to all institutions of higher learning. We agree with both Republicans and Democrats who want to see more audit-ready data for every college and university so as to validate and verify the foundational basis upon which the department creates and enforces regulations that should be applied to all higher education institutions (last year’s gainful employment rules among them). More can be done to guard against potential political motivations in the presentation of public data.
For our part, University of Phoenix is also clear that we must improve student outcomes, as we generally have year over year. From significant investment in our core campuses to ensuring that first-time undergraduates complete a pathway diagnostic before enrolling in their first credit-bearing course, we are engaged in the work that will help us to continue improving those outcomes and, more generally, to transform into a better, more trusted institution.
In the year I have been president, I have met with thousands of our students and graduates -- the men and women who are the face of that nontraditional category. These are people who are achieving great academic success despite the other demands that contemporary life imposes. They are driven, ambitious, determined and hardworking. And they leave me in no doubt of two things: their success deserves to be appropriately recognized, and their successors deserve better information in picking a college. We can all play a role in securing these basic goals.
Timothy P. Slottow is president of University of Phoenix.