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January-February 2009

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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

With the economy in chaos and a new administration taking power, the nation is looking for a better way to meet the educational and vocational needs of its citizens. A key strategy may reside in that most American of educational institutions, the community college. Two-year colleges have been the pathway to middle-class careers for millions of Americans since before the dawn of the 20th century, when another economic crisis, the Panic of 1893, led to the earliest discussions about them. The idea caught on in a big way in the early 20th century, when they were seen as a creative, community-minded way to implement educational reform and address the growing need for vocational education, access to higher education, and a way to educate part-time and older students. Since their explosive growth in the 1960s, they have been an integral part of the American higher education landscape.

In 2009, we face a different economic—and educational—crisis. Given their open-door policies and wide distribution, community colleges are now accessible to most of the nation’s population. But far too many students are leaving without getting the education they need to move along their career paths, find new ones, or complete a four-year education at a university. 

 In this issue of
Change, we look at Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national initiative dedicated to the idea that community colleges should be as successful at retaining and graduating students, particularly students of color and low-income students, as they are at enrolling them.  Conceived by the Lumina Foundation for Education in 2004, Achieving the Dream has been designed and led by a partnership of organizations with the mission to work long term on a community college student success agenda. In four years, the initiative has grown to include 82 institutions in 15 states and has attracted 20 additional funders who, with Lumina, have made a total investment of nearly $100 million.

On campus, the initiative is focused on creating a culture of evidence, one in which data about student success—and failure—is gathered, analyzed, and used to identify problems and create new ways to address them, all with the goal of improving student outcomes. It makes the communities inside and outside the institution participants in the process, and it works to effect state and national policy changes that support a student-success agenda.

Achieving the Dream is now heading into its fifth year of admitting colleges into the initiative and is on the verge of a national expansion in 2010. In the three articles that follow, we look at its successes and challenges so far, learn about research on a key piece of federal student-success data, and hear from a national business leader about how our response to the economic and educational challenges of the 21st century will be as important as the response to the Panic of 1893 that helped lead to the creation of community colleges in the first place.

—Margaret Miller
Change Executive Editor

Achieving the Community-College Dream

by Carol Lincoln

Over the years, the board of trustees at San Jacinto Community College in Texas has spent a lot of time discussing how many students fill the college’s seats each term, in large part because enrollment helps determine state funding. But until 2007, they had never discussed what happened to these men and women after the first day of classes—whether they went on to complete even a single course, never mind to transfer or earn a certificate or degree.

That changed in early 2007, when the board chair, vice chair, and chancellor participated in a trustee institute run by the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at the University of Texas at Austin and sponsored by Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count. There they were confronted with a range of troubling national statistics on student success. For instance, just over half of full- and part-time freshman attending two-year colleges return for a second year, while a mere 36 percent earn a certificate or degree within six years. And at least 42 percent of first-year students at community colleges enroll in at least one developmental education class—even while research from Texas indicates that up to half of those taking remedial courses don’t complete them. But the hardest number to face was one of their own: According to the Achieving the Dream database—which allows colleges to compare their results with others around the country—just 12 percent of students at San Jacinto completed a certificate or degree, compared to a median 31 percent at other large community colleges in the West and Southwest.

The group returned to campus and, at a previously scheduled board meeting the next week, announced a 180-degree shift in focus. First, the chairman publicly acknowledged the dismal student retention and completion rates and vowed that things were going to change. Then the board moved to increase its yearly tuition hike by an additional dollar, with 100 percent of the proceeds directed toward student success initiatives on campus. The room broke into applause.

San Jacinto is not alone. After decades spent concentrating on open access, many community colleges across the U.S. are acknowledging the hard truth that the vast majority of students aren’t meeting their educational goals. So the colleges are making student success both an immediate and long-term priority.

That is the ultimate aim of Achieving the Dream, which is now working with 82 community colleges in 15 states to create a “culture of evidence” on campus, in which hard data drive decisions about which strategies will be adopted to improve student outcomes. These campuses are having courageous conversations in which faculty, staff, presidents and trustees accept the data, take accountability for the problems in the system, recognize the scale of the challenges they face, and press ahead on solutions.

The initiative is the creation of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, the nation’s largest foundation focused solely on higher education. In creating Achieving the Dream, Lumina gathered a group of national partner organizations—including the CCLP at UT-Austin, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Jobs for the Future, social-policy research group MDRC, and community-engagement specialists Public Agenda—to design and develop the initiative. MDC, Inc., a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based nonprofit that focuses on innovative approaches to education and workforce issues, is the group’s managing partner.

The nation’s 1,200 community colleges educate nearly half the undergraduates in this country. They provide a crucial gateway to postsecondary education for many low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students. But fewer than half of community college students meet their educational goals, and that number is even lower for disadvantaged students. Achieving the Dream has focused on colleges with higher-than-usual enrollments of low-income students and students of color; according to the Achieving the Dream database, while 70 percent of first-time students who enrolled in 2002 returned for a second semester, fewer than a quarter were around at ATD institutions two years later.

Community colleges must find a way to help more students develop the skills and credentials they need for the 21st-century global economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 percent of the 18.9 million new jobs that will be created by 2014 will require some postsecondary education. And demographers are emphatic that the underserved students who are the prime focus of Achieving the Dream—particularly fast-growing populations of immigrants—are the key to filling these openings, which will require advanced technical skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. Otherwise, those jobs will disappear or move abroad.

In 2004, Change published an issue entitled “Community Colleges in a Perfect Storm” that looked at many of these difficult, pressing issues. Four years later, a growing number of institutions are emerging from the tempest thanks to initiatives such as Achieving the Dream. The project is helping institutions create systems that track and analyze data as a way of identifying problems, as well as helping students survive—and thrive—by pinpointing populations that currently have low levels of success, developing strategies to improve outcomes, and measuring the results.

Thanks to interventions such as instructional innovations, improving the first-year experience, beefing up advising programs, and creating early-alert systems, more community college students are achieving their goals and those set by the initiative: the completion of remedial work that leads to success in credit-bearing courses; completion of the courses attempted with a grade of C or better; persistence from one semester to the next; and, ultimately, earning a degree or certificate.

And some participating colleges also are making significant progress toward Achieving the Dream’s core goal: eliminating the well-documented achievement gaps between traditionally underserved students and their classmates. When colleges break down data by factors such as race, gender, and age, they often have to face serious problems of which they may only have been vaguely aware  before—that Hispanic students are not faring as well as others, for instance, or that developmental math is the most failed course on campus. More often than not, the discovery process brings up difficult questions about teaching, learning, race, equity and so much more. This is especially hard for colleges that have been winning all sorts of awards and grants and are then left wondering, “How can it be that these are our numbers?”

Some important lessons have emerged from what is now a national learning community representing some 860,000 students. First and foremost is the importance of the four principles of the Achieving the Dream model for institutional improvement: committed leadership, creating a culture of evidence to improve programs and services, promoting broad engagement within the institutions and with the outside community, and moving toward systemic institutional change.

Here are some examples of what is taking place on the front lines.

William D. Law, Jr., president of Tallahassee Community College (TCC) in Florida, never misses an opportunity to emphasize how important the student success agenda is, both to him personally and to the institution. In fact, nearly every time he stands at a podium, he begins by talking about three things:

1. The college’s definition of student success, which is that students finish what they start.

2. The idea that if your job is not to teach, then it is to help students get to class in the best condition for learning—which translates into good registration systems, childcare, parking, substantial financial aid, and a well-maintained campus.

3. The notion that access changes students’ self-perception but degrees and certificates change their lives.

Despite TCC’s relatively solid performance—the college was in the top 20 nationally for granting associate’s degrees in 2005-06, for example, and 11th in awards to African-American students—President Law has made doing better an institutional priority for everyone on campus. Since TCC joined the first round of Achieving the Dream in 2004, Law has talked so much about these goals—and about how student progress is everyone’s responsibility, from the president to professors to the campus janitors—that he jokes that some people now groan when he starts speaking. But on the plus side, almost everyone on campus can repeat his three-pronged mantra back to him.

This type of strong, committed leadership is critical to the process of institutional transformation. While the day-to-day work of programs such as Achieving the Dream must be undertaken by those working most closely with students in classrooms, it doesn’t go anywhere without active support from the top. When a president and other administrators fully embrace the agenda, it is safe for those inside the institution to study data and ask hard questions about student outcomes without fear of repercussions.

Law’s first act was to spearhead an overhaul of the college’s data system, to collect more and better information for strategic uses as opposed to merely meeting federal and state requirements. The college has made these data accessible to everyone who could possibly need and learn from them. An initiative called TCC Passport puts online all the data the college has collected on each student, including current schedule, midterm and final grades, graduation plans, and how many times he or she received counseling. There are also specific data portals for the Board of Trustees and community partners that facilitate their access to and use of such information.

Data analysis has resulted in new campus policies and practices over the last several years. In the past, every intervention the college offered was based on low GPA, but after looking at the research, administrators found that completion of courses was a much more accurate predictor of success. Specifically, 80 percent of students who dropped no more than one course in their first semester returned the next term.

So the college  extended orientation from a half-day to a full day, added parent and family orientation sessions, provided extra tutors and labs in the classes where most first-year students were struggling, and installed early-warning signals that help professors and counselors intervene at the first signs of trouble. There’s also a brand-new “Learning Commons,” a comprehensive, integrated learning center that provides resources in math, science, and communications. In addition, the more than 2,800 first-time students who place into two or more remedial courses are required to take a “College Success” class that covers topics such as study skills and goal-setting, while all students except those who have completed a quarter or more of their degree program with a 2.0 overall GPA or better must complete an individual learning plan that maps goals and charts progress with a trained advisor.

Overall, the college’s high level of leadership and support is having effects. Students in the fall 2005 and 2006 cohorts who received intense advising and extra help successfully completed an average of 66.8 percent of their credit hours with a grade of  A, B, or C, compared to 65.7 percent for those not in the intervention—a slight increase in percentage terms but significant in real numbers. In addition, the percentage of credit hours that the participants in the 2005 and 2006 Achieving the Dream cohorts withdrew from was 12 percent, versus 13.5 percent  among those who did not take part. Most encouragingly, African-American students in the fall 2006 ATD cohort withdrew from only 9.5 percent of their credit hours, compared to 13.8 percent for African-American students who were not part of the cohort.

Leadership also can come directly from boards of trustees, whose members typically focus on issues such as facilities and finances but who can have a significant impact when they turn their attention to student success. That’s what has happened at San Jacinto College, which last year launched student-success-related programs large and small, from K-12 alignment initiatives to faculty training in collaborative learning—and even a redecorating project that’s replaced the college logo in the boardroom with artwork that says “Achieving Students’ Dreams” to remind everyone of the new focus.

A Culture of Evidence
In years past, decisions at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio were made the way they were at most community colleges, based on funding, anecdotes about student performance, or history. But starting with the college’s bid for reaccreditation with an Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) for the Higher Learning Commission in 2004 and after joining Achieving the Dream in 2005, there has been a shift on campus toward a culture of evidence. Now, key decisions—from setting educational strategies and allocating resources to scheduling classes and organizing student services—are grounded in data on student outcomes.

While information research (IR) and information technology (IT) capacity have been challenges for a number of our colleges, Cuyahoga had a fairly robust, four-person IR department in place, along with the ability to go back several decades with longitudinal data—the key to tracking student progress over time. As a result, the college could immediately take a long, hard look at its numbers.

One fact was immediately obvious: The fast-growing population of developmental education students was the least likely to successfully complete subsequent courses. In fall 2006, for example, 82 percent of incoming students placed into developmental math, while 58 percent placed into developmental English. Looking at data from a 1999 longitudinal cohort study, the college found that of those requiring developmental English only, 68 percent went on to complete college-level English; of those requiring developmental math, just 32 percent eventually completed college-level math; and of those requiring both developmental English and math, 40 percent went on to complete college-level English and 20 percent eventually completed college-level math. On the plus side, for those who did make it through college-level English, the graduation rate was twice as high as the mean for all students, and for those who made it through college-level math, it was more than three times higher.

Working with these students became a college priority, and administrators hit upon two faculty-led pilot initiatives that were already in process on campus: learning communities that linked a developmental English course either with a college-survival-skills course or other subject matter and a math initiative that paired courses in developmental math (pre-algebra and beginning algebra) with the “On Course” curriculum developed by Skip Downing, which addresses personal responsibility for learning and study skills such as time management and goal setting.

The college is currently looking at data from these two initiatives—measuring student progress against a comparison group of students with similar ages, GPAs, and other factors—to tweak offerings and, ultimately, to make decisions about which programs to take to scale. For example, the college recently decided to ramp-up learning communities linking English with a college-survival-skills course because that was found to work better than  just creating learning communities that linked students in several academic courses.  
The developmental math initiative, which has been offered in 10 different versions on the college’s three campuses since fall 2006, has shown even more promising results: As of late 2007, 51.3 percent of the students taking beginning algebra paired with “On Course” had completed the class with a C or better, versus 44.2 percent in the matched cohort group. These students also performed better on other measures of success, going on to complete the next-level math course in larger  numbers (37.5 percent versus 29.5 percent) and earning more credit hours in later semesters (an average of 22.3 versus 17) with higher GPAs (an average of 2.31 versus 2.15). Both the ratio of credits earned to credits attempted and persistence rates were higher for the class with the intervention, and results have been similarly encouraging in later cohorts. 

While a final decision is pending, administrators say it’s likely that this model will be taken to scale and required of a certain subset of students, to be determined by further research on the relationship between student success and factors such as placement scores and high school GPAs. In this way, the college hopes to address a significant challenge—getting students to enroll in Achieving the Dream interventions, which are currently voluntary.

Cuyahoga established metrics for its 2008-09 annual goals, created a data warehouse system to speed the processing and distribution of information, and now uses student outcomes data to make administrative decisions such as course scheduling and recruitment plans. For instance, the college had a policy of dropping students for non-payment at a certain point in the semester. A year ago, administrators piloted a program that gave students more time to pay their bills while providing extra reminders about things such as registration, financial aid, and tuition deadlines. When research showed that the college retained 500 more students with the new system, the finance office made the policy permanent.

Many other colleges are developing similar cultures of evidence, where student outcome data are used to identify problems, set priorities, develop interventions, and measure progress toward success, often with the help of Achieving the Dream coaches and data consultants. At Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, initial research showed that only 12 percent of lowest-level developmental math students moved on to college-level courses because of stumbling blocks such as a slow progression through developmental courses and a lack of financial aid. In response, the college launched the Transitions initiative, which links its adult-education program with developmental education for students who place into the lowest-level remedial courses in reading, writing, and math.

This initiative, which is entirely tuition-free thanks to the state’s adult-education policy, runs five days a week for five hours a day, providing intensive basic instruction and allowing students to move through multiple developmental education levels quickly, based on their scores on frequently administered tests. Although results are still preliminary, they are encouraging. Based on one semester of data, 95 percent of Transition students remained in the program throughout the semester, compared with 43 percent of those in typical remedial courses. Twenty students passed through a total of 34 developmental education levels while in the program, compared to only 20 levels for the 14 students in regular offerings.

Broad Engagement
One institution that has focused on broad engagement in its student success initiatives is Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia. During its initial Achieving the Dream year in 2004, the college doled out assignments such as literature reviews, conference attendance, and college visits to identify best practices to more than 40 of the college’s 50 full-time faculty members, staff, and administrators. During the December holiday break, the college held a retreat in which the researchers came together to report on what they had learned and to agree on ways to foster student engagement and improve the persistence and success rates of all students, especially those in developmental education courses.
The college eventually decided to adopt cooperative learning strategies in nearly all disciplines and departments. This pedagogical approach, developed by the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, promotes students’ active engagement in their learning through small-group work and team building. It also uses interactive learning strategies such as having professors solicit regular feedback on what students are absorbing.

To get faculty invested in cooperative learning, Patrick Henry sent representatives for training at a college in Minnesota that uses the approach. The college then offered workshops and training sessions on campus, along with a small stipend for faculty members who went through the instruction and subsequently used cooperative learning techniques in their classrooms. Seven full-time faculty members became certified cooperative learning trainers and lead ongoing training for their peers.

Administrators built cooperative learning requirements into the job descriptions for new faculty members and recently began paying increased fees per credit hour for adjunct faculty members who get the training. Consequently, all full-time and 85 percent of part-time faculty members have been introduced to cooperative learning through voluntary or required in-service activities and orientations, and at least 40 percent of full-time faculty routinely use cooperative learning strategies in their classes, with others incorporating them sporadically.

In 2007 there were 847 students in more than 35 cooperative learning classes in subjects such as developmental English, anatomy, and sociology at Patrick Henry, and the college has continued to assess the results, particularly when it comes to persistence. All signs indicate that things are moving in the right direction.  For the 2005 and 2006 cohorts of first-time, degree-seeking students, the attrition rate for students who did not enroll in courses using cooperative learning was 25.6 percent, compared to 19.1 percent for those who were enrolled in one cooperative learning course and to a remarkably low 5.3 percent for students taking two or more cooperative learning courses.

At least 10 other colleges feature faculty development as a prominent aspect of Achieving the Dream work and as a vehicle for faculty engagement. At Brookhaven College in Texas, 100 faculty members attended conferences or workshops under an Achieving the Dream grant, while virtually all the full-time professors at the University of New Mexico-Gallup have participated in professional activities. Other colleges have focused on involving students through surveys, focus groups, and inclusion on program teams or committees. At Central New Mexico Community College, for example, student focus groups generated ideas for improving the college’s learning-communities strategy.

Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut reached out to the community to change perceptions of the college, improve student performance and success, and begin making headway on the state’s achievement gap—the largest in the nation. On a cold Saturday morning in January 2006, the college brought together over 100 faculty, staff, board members, K-12 representatives, and leaders of local nonprofit organizations for a “community conversation” based on a model developed by Public Agenda. The topic was “What do we need to be doing as a college to better serve the community?” The discussion covered making more successful transitions from one educational level to the next, providing stronger student support, and creating better access to information about resources at the institution.

Since then, NCC has reached out even further, launching a number of initiatives to institutionalize its community engagement in specific areas, including early childhood and K-12 education. These include working with the local anti-poverty agency that runs Head Start to provide better teacher training; a free-transition-to-kindergarten program focused on bilingual needs; and a number of early-college programs that bring middle and high school students to campus over the school year and summer for educational and enrichment programs such as African drumming, word processing, physical fitness, and culinary arts.

Norwalk is also working with the nearby Fairfield County Community Foundation on a new project designed to help single parents and their families. The pilot will offer 20 parents the opportunity to enroll at the college part-time while receiving support for tuition, childcare, and counseling on credit and budget issues from a financial coach. The college plans to track outcomes and then, if the program is a success, expand it to serve 100 participants over five years.

Systemic Institutional Change
When Valencia Community College in Florida joined Achieving the Dream in 2004, it wasn’t clear why the college needed help—it awards more associate degrees than any community college in the country. Still, top administrators were open about the fact that while some excellent initiatives operated on campus, almost too many innovations were in play, many of them at the margins where they were helping only a handful of students at a time. Valencia wanted to create real, systemic institutional change that touched every student who needed assistance. The college also wanted to concentrate more on closing achievement gaps such as those in the completion of remedial coursework and graduation rates, where both African-American and Hispanic students lagged behind their Caucasian and Asian peers.

To start, they worked Achieving the Dream metrics and goals into their new strategic plan and embedded the program’s core team in the College Learning Council in order to integrate the initiative into the college’s governance structure. Additionally, the college continued to take great pains to ensure that faculty and staff across its four campuses had regular access to data reports; could acquire research when they wanted it; and were regularly brainstorming about their findings through monthly, quarterly and annual meetings on a campus-, department-, and college-wide basis. 

Throughout its Achieving the Dream research and planning year, Valencia assessed strategies it piloted in order to identify promising practices for student success and move them though the “innovation funnel” from test phase to full implementation. The college set criteria of effectiveness, ripeness, and scalability to identify strategies that would have the greatest impact on closing targeted achievement gaps. The winnowing process resulted in an expansion of the student success course, along with two types of learning communities—“supplemental learning” (SL), with student peer leader participation, and “learning in community” (LinC), in which either two academic subjects or a subject and a college-transition course are linked and team-taught.

In the course of their research, administrators looked at the ten classes on campus with the lowest success rates and found that nine of the ten were math or math-related (such as economics), which was a big “aha” moment. That led to an all-campus “math summit” and the eventual conclusion that more resources had to go not only into developmental math, but also into gateway courses. Administrators then paired those ten courses with the ten classes with the highest enrollment, focusing on six with the highest overlap: pre-algebra, beginning algebra, intermediate algebra (which are all developmental courses), college algebra, freshman composition, and U.S. government.

The initial results have been extremely encouraging. The strategies have touched a large number of students—23,973 between spring 2006 and summer 2008, to be exact—and these men and women are succeeding more, both in terms of course success with a grade of C or better and course completion overall. For example, in fall 2007, 71 percent of students in intermediate algebra classes with an SL or LinC component were successful, compared to 59 percent of students in the same course without interventions.  A heartening 87 percent of students who participated in the interventions completed the course, compared to 79 percent of those who didn’t. Over the past two years, persistence rates also have been higher across the board for students in all SL, LinC, and student success interventions, as have average cumulative credit hours—and that’s true whether or not students tested into developmental education.

But the real success story is that such initiatives are helping to close the achievement gaps between African-American and Hispanic students and their peers. According to preliminary data, over the last eight years the gap between African-American students and their Caucasian counterparts in all six courses with Achieving the Dream interventions has gone from -7.1 percent in 2001 and -17.6 percent in 2003 (just before joining Achieving the Dream) to a lag of just 3.6 percentage points in 2008. Further, the success-rate gap between Hispanic and Caucasian students, which rose from -0.5 percent in 2001 to -4.2 percent in 2003, reversed to an astounding +4 percent in 2008—meaning that Hispanic students actually outperformed their white peers last year.

Still, there have been a few bumps along the way at Valencia. The student success course was initially required of all students who placed into developmental classes in three disciplines—reading, writing, and math. The college planned to study the pilot and then expand it this fall, but when the school’s curriculum committee looked at the performance data, they didn’t agree that it showed a compelling difference with regard to student success. So the school has returned to the drawing board, refining its research and statistical procedures for this past fall’s classes, and postponing a decision on next steps until another summit is convened this year.

One sign that Valencia is truly undergoing systemic transformation is that it has been able to sustain changes and improvements even through leadership transitions at the vice presidential, faculty and staff levels—something that has proven a major challenge at other schools.

A number of other institutions are on the path towards broad-based change, such as Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, which started a program in which 40 faculty volunteers became student success coaches, working largely with developmental education students. While the program was successful, the college couldn’t maintain it at that level of faculty involvement. So the college went back to the drawing board and launched a counseling center with two full-time staff members.  Now the college is reaching a much larger number of students in a sustainable way.

These stories demonstrate the progress that has been made in the first four years of Achieving the Dream, but they also make it clear that there is much more work to be done. One of the biggest challenges remaining for community colleges is to figure out how to further improve the developmental education experience for students, particularly when it comes to remedial math, which is by far the biggest stumbling block for the greatest number of people. They don’t yet have all the answers, but they know that they need at least to improve curricula and pedagogy and discover ways to shorten the amount of time spent in developmental education.

There are other challenges ahead. It’s one thing for colleges to work on student success issues for a couple of years and see some improvements and quite another to have student-outcomes analysis become an ongoing, permanent way of making decisions. The first group of Achieving the Dream colleges will finish their demonstration experience in June 2009, and they will need to find a way to sustain the work of systemic institutional transformation without extra resources from Achieving the Dream.

Meanwhile, since far more colleges have asked to join the program than can be  accommodated, Achieving the Dream looks forward to bringing the collective wisdom it has amassed to more colleges and more states though a national expansion phase. Under the revised delivery model, new participants will absorb more of the costs themselves. The extent to which these institutions are ready and able to do this work without grant money from a private foundation remains to be seen.

There is no quick fix for the problems that face today’s community colleges. They need the long-term, sustained focus of college leadership, faculty, and state policy makers over the next decade or longer. The pathway to growing the number of students who finish what they start won’t be short or easy, but it’s the journey we must undertake.

Carol Lincoln is a senior program director at MDC, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and national director of Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count.

What Counts as Community College Success? Better Ways to Answer the Question

by Susan Goldberger and Richard Kazis

“What does success mean to you?”

That’s the question leaders from the Virginia Community College System put to a roomful of students at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) last spring as part of a round of “listening sessions” meant to inform their ongoing strategic planning process.

After hearing heartbreaking tales of students dropping out and inspiring ones of degrees obtained, jobs won, and wages raised, there came a zinger from the back row: A young Indian immigrant stood up and described her achievements at NVCC, including the fact that she’d completed 67 credit hours and recently been accepted to nearby George Mason University, where she planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree in international business. Then she paused and said, “But according to your own definition in Dateline 2009 [the state community college system’s strategic plan], I am not a success.”

This young woman, who’d done her homework, was right. Dateline 2009 uses the federal definition of community college student success: the number of full-time, first-time undergraduates who earn a degree or certificate within 150 percent of the normal time to completion, or three years in the case of an associate’s degree. By that measure, this bright and motivated student was indeed a failure, because she’d decided to transfer without graduating. “Clearly, NVCC is the reason I’ve been successful in higher education—because of the work I’ve done, faculty involvement, school support, student clubs—and yet my own school doesn’t consider me a success,” she mused aloud, obviously frustrated. “If I’m not a success, then who is?”

It’s a great question, one that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking through during the last four years in the Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count initiative. Who counts as a success, how do colleges and states keep track of success, and how do they use data on student outcomes to help more students succeed. These are questions that colleges and states involved in this ambitious effort have been working hard to answer.

There must be a more accurate and useful method than the ones we currently use for measuring, evaluating, and comparing community college performance and student success.
The current federal reporting system, designed with four-year institutions in mind but used to compare the performance of all postsecondary institutions, just doesn’t cut it.

Because federal data systems track only how many first-time, full-time students have graduated within three years, they are incomplete and often inaccurate measures of community college student success. In Achieving the Dream institutions, it is common for one-third to one-half of students to attend part-time; students who transfer to four-year institutions are also lost from the count. And because their focus is on graduation rates only, federal measures have limited value to institutions and states when it comes to identifying early on which students might be at risk of failure to complete their programs and achieve their goals.

If state policymakers and community college leaders are to have the tools they need to tackle the challenges that make it hard for so many community college students to succeed, they need information that can provide a more complete and nuanced picture of how different kinds of students are doing from the time they enter an institution to the time they leave. And measurement of student performance has to become not a compliance exercise with minimal relevance to planning and strategy but a tool for making decisions about where performance is weak and how outcomes can be improved. 

States Seek Richer, More Usable Student Data
Good policies begin with good data. Achieving the Dream states and institutions have taken the courageous step of publicly recognizing the need for greater student success, and they have pledged to use data to identify problems and make improvements—for the sake of their students, their local and regional economies, and the nation. An important step in that direction is to develop a more accurate and useful way to measure community college student progress and success, so that policymakers can distinguish among groups of students that need special support, assess the impact of particular programs or instructional innovations on each of them, and monitor and interpret their progress against benchmarks.

To that end, a subset of six of the fifteen Achieving the Dream states—Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia—formed a cross-state data work group in 2006 to devise richer measures of community college student progress and success over time, with the goal of creating a better way to track outcomes for community college students and benchmark progress within and across states.

The six-state work group designed and tested performance measures that incorporate several key changes from current federal reporting requirements (see Table 1). The new measures:

• Include part-time students.
• Extend the time frame for tracking outcomes from three years after initial enrollment to six years.
• Register as successful students who transfer to a four-year institution before graduation.
• Count as successful students who are still enrolled after six years and have made substantial progress towards a degree (i.e., completed at least 30 college credits).

Table 1: Comparing Community College Performance Measures

In addition, the group disaggregated the performance of younger and older students and of part-time and full-time students to assess variations in the groups’ performance and to allow for comparisons between states and institutions with different demographic profiles. The states decided that these more nuanced subgroup analyses are critical to assessing where improvement efforts should be targeted and how policy can steer institutions toward new priorities. (A summary of the work of this group can be found in Test Drive, an Achieving the Dream policy brief published by Jobs for the Future that can be downloaded at

Using data from their community college systems, each state tracked all first-time certificate and degree-seeking community college students for five or six years from their initial date of enrollment, building institutional research infrastructure and capacity along the way. The results of this nuanced approach yielded more accurate—and ultimately, more useful—information about community college student performance, as well as about individual state systems and policies.

Using the new metrics, the percentage of students in each state with successful outcomes rose compared to the federal reporting. However, there was significant variation across states, ranging from 33 percent in Connecticut to 51 percent in Texas. There was also significant variation in specific outcomes achieved (See Table 2) For example, Ohio and Florida had associate degree completion rates of 23 percent and 22 percent, respectively, compared to rates of 9 percent in Connecticut and 12 percent in Texas. On the other hand, Texas had the highest percentage of students transferring to four-year institutions prior to earning an award in Texas (25%) while Florida and Ohio had the lowest rates (7% and 6%).

Table 2: Student Success Rate Using State Workgroup Method

While still not a complete picture of community college students, this method provides more robust information about a much larger group of students and provides states and institutions with a way to analyze, discuss, and address challenges that the data make transparent and define more precisely.

With Better Data Come Better Questions—and Strategies
Pushing the time frame for reporting out to six years, which states recommended after comparing federal three-year graduation rates with data that tracked students for a much longer time, provided a more accurate analysis of who ultimately graduates and who does not and resulted in a substantial boost in student success rates. This was particularly true for part-time students, who often come and go from school as work, family, and finances allow, and for those who start in developmental education, who obviously need more time to hone basic skills and get through school. As illustrated in Table 3, the six-year graduation rate for all students in Florida who began full-time was almost double the three-year rate. And for those who began part-time, six-year success rates were more than double the three-year rates.

But the goal of more accurate reporting is not to make community colleges feel better about their performance. In fact, when the Achieving the Dream Work Group states took a close look at the outcomes for their institutions’ part-time students and older, working students, real challenges came into stark relief. In the six participating pilot states, the data showed that as many as 36 to 49 percent of students began their college careers part-time and that a disproportionate number of low-income students attend part-time. Moreover, success rates for part-time students were significantly lower than for their full-time counterparts in five of the six states: part-time students’ success rates were at least 14 percentage points lower that those for full-time students (see Table 4). (The exception was Texas, where full-time and part-time students had similar rates: 54 percent of full-time students and 48 percent of part-time students succeeded.)

Table 3: Comparison of Three-Year and Six-Year Graduation Rates in Florida

Table 4: Success Rate by Full-Time/Part-Time Enrollment

The analysis should lead policymakers to ask an important policy-related question:  If going full-time is more likely to result in completion, policy changes that promote such a shift might be a powerful lever for helping institutions increase student success rates.  How can states motivate a segment of the part-time student population, particularly low-income younger students with fewer family responsibilities, to stretch and take a full-time load? The analysis might also stimulate questions about Texas: Is there something about Texas policies and practices that can be instructive for other states, or is there something amiss with the Texas data? Presenting and assessing the data may raise more questions than answers, but they are frequently the right questions to be probing.

Another important variation in student performance, corroborated by the six states’ data analyses, is in the relative success of younger versus older students. In general, traditional-age students (22 and under) were much more likely to be successful than their older counterparts: Across the states, lower success rates for older students of ten percentage points or more were typical. However, North Carolina provides an important counter-example. That state has achieved substantially higher graduation and transfer rates with older students—a near-even 46 percent versus 50 percent for younger students—compared to rates between 21 and 35 percent in the other five work-group states.

Why is North Carolina more successful with older, mostly working students? What can other states learn from North Carolina’s institutional practices and state policies for this demographic group? The state’s community college system was designed to provide nontraditional-age students with technical and vocational training: almost half of community college students are 23 and older, compared to less than a quarter in most other states. Perhaps the strong links to local industry make a difference; perhaps North Carolina’s institutions have found some alternative ways to structure career-related programs for non-traditional students. Again, the data analysis prompts important questions—and can lead states and institutions toward new and more effective approaches.

The willingness of the six pilot states to look at their data in new ways provoked these energetic discussions within the group about the success rates of part-time students and the variation in success rates of older and younger students (see Table 5). By breaking down their analyses in ways that identify vulnerable student populations, such as part-time developmental education students, the states are well positioned to use this new information to suggest targeted institutional and policy actions that can address performance gaps.

Table 5: Success Rate by Age Group

Benchmarking Performance as a Way to Assess—and Improve—Policies
Not surprisingly, the more a state does to encourage behavior in certain directions, the more it drives institutions and students to follow those paths. When it comes to policy impact on student success and institutional outcomes, the benchmarking that the work-group states are engaged in provides material for rich cross-state comparisons, contrasts, and lessons.

The variation of transfer patterns that has emerged from the six states’ data and analyses is a good case in point. In Texas, for example, state policy encourages community college students to transfer to four-year colleges after completing a general education core curriculum and before graduating. Students who finish an approved 42-48 credit curriculum are guaranteed transfer of all credits to any four-year university in the state. As a result,25 percent of all incoming students opt to move to four-year schools before earning a degree compared to 14% in North Carolina and Connecticut, the next highest states.

In Florida, unlike Texas, several state policies ease the transfer process for students who earn an associate of arts degree first, guaranteeing admission as a junior into the state university system and many private colleges. Additionally, a good number of Florida’s community colleges offer bachelors and other advanced degree programs on site, further paving the way to higher credentials. Thus, it’s not surprising that Florida has the highest rate of students who transfer after earning an associate’s degree, at 69 percent, and one of the lowest rates of students transferring before earning a degree (7%).

The Achieving the Dream cross-state data work group has ambitious plans for the coming years. At least five more states—South Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Washington—will join the group, which will continue to refine data measures and collection. For instance, each state will track placement test data so that student performance can be assessed by what research has shown to be the most significant predictor of college success—the academic readiness of incoming students.

Going forward, Achieving the Dream will be testing and working to incorporate into state performance measurement systems a more elaborate set of intermediate success measures to help determine whether community college students in their first two years are on track to earn a credential or transfer. These measures include:

• the completion of remedial coursework by developmental education students;
• enrollment in and completion of first college-level math and English courses;
• pass rates in both remedial and college-level courses; and
• continuous enrollment from year to year and term to term.

Perhaps most important, the group has committed to annual tracking of intermediate and final outcomes, starting from and benchmarking against 2002 baseline data.

Benchmarking sets foundation for system-improvement efforts
For Achieving the Dream as an initiative, this exciting data and benchmarking work is just a starting point for state and college efforts to help more students succeed. Once student and institutional performance is more transparent and easier to analyze, then the truly difficult work of figuring out what to do to help more students succeed begins. Good data help practitioners and policymakers agree to the facts and spur more thoughtful discussions about the kinds of innovations that work best with which populations. Ultimately, though, analysis needs to inform state policy action designed to support, spread, and sustain effective practices. This has been a key component of Achieving the Dream across its fifteen participating states.

In the past several years, teams from the fifteen Achieving the Dream states have identified and set goals for themselves in four other high-leverage policy areas, in addition to data and performance systems, where state action can help community colleges improve student outcomes, particularly for low-income and under-prepared students:

1. Improving student success as demonstrated in performance measures that report on progress in meeting specific goals.
2. Improving developmental education, first-year outcomes, and student progress into and through credit courses and programs.
3. Better aligning standards, assessments, and expectations with K-12 systems through greater joint efforts to improve the college readiness of high school graduates, as well as with four-year institutions through more coherent and transparent transfer policies for community college students.
4. Expanding need-based financial aid structured to promote retention and success.

Achieving the Dream states have secured a range of policy gains, such as:

• An emphasis on student success goals in state community college strategic plans.
• New performance indicators in state accountability systems that reward developmental education students’ progress.
• Performance funding mechanisms that begin to shift funding toward performance rather than enrollment—for instance, that
reward the intermediate progress of students past key milestones.
• Increased capacity of state agencies and systems to provide institutions with more and easier-to-use information about their students’ progress.
• Creative efforts to help assess high school students’ basic skills and to support skill development so that more students finish high school ready for college courses, and reassessment of developmental education placement-test policies so that they are more coherent and  systemic.

As the Achieving the Dream colleges begin to show results from programmatic innovations designed to increase student success, participating states will be watching carefully to see if certain promising innovations—like the student success courses in Florida, for example—should be supported and expanded statewide. (For more information on state goals, plans, and progress, see

Back in Virginia, state system administrators involved in the Achieving the Dream cross-state data work group are analyzing their improved data. One of the most significant lessons they gleaned from the experience has been that developmental math is a serious, statewide sore spot but also that students who complete the required developmental math courses and a gatekeeper math class have an 80 percent chance of success. Progress in mastering college math appears to be the single biggest predictor of student success.

For Virginia, as for other Achieving the Dream states and their institutions, the challenge now is to figure out how, exactly, to help more students make it through that full course sequence. To this end, representatives from all of the state’s community colleges recently met to discuss new approaches to developmental education that can repackage the current curriculum more effectively, including creating short, focused topic modules that students can complete “just in time” instead of having to labor through an entire 16-week course that may cover information they’ve already mastered. A statewide task force has been established to examine such new options.

Regardless of what Virginia ultimately decides to do, the state has made a clear commitment to use the levers of policy to drive dramatically improved student outcomes—starting with good data and vigorous public reporting of how the state’s students and institutions are doing in helping students succeed. The commitment to using data for improvement, not just reporting it for compliance, has changed the discussion across the system and its institutions. More accurate metrics developed by Achieving the Dream’s cross-state data work group are helping the state generate more useful information about its students. That young Indian immigrant at Northern Virginia Community College can now be counted as a success story.

The real challenge, though, still lies ahead. As one top administrator recently said, “These new numbers aren’t good enough. We have got to do a better job of helping students cross the finish line... If we were producing widgets, we would have a hard time staying in business [with these numbers]. It’s not okay.” This recognition, and the commitment to change that comes with it, is at the core of Achieving the Dream. In fact, for both colleges and states, this may be its most lasting accomplishment.

Susan Goldberger is director of New Ventures and Richard Kazis is senior vice president at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Success of Our Future Workers—And the American Economy

by Arthur J. Rothkopf

Over the past months, the United States has experienced a serious downturn in our economy and extraordinary turbulence in our financial markets. Millions of Americans are anxious about whether their skills are going to provide them with job opportunities in a volatile economic landscape.

Given this anxiety, and the accepted connection between education and economic growth, it is perhaps no surprise that many observers seeking to ease our economic concerns have turned their attention to the question of how we can expand educational opportunities for all Americans. What many don’t realize, however, is that an often overlooked segment of the nation’s education system—community colleges—has a vital role to play in getting us back on track. They can play a crucial role in helping to re-train workers and address the shortage of skilled workers in growing fields such as information technology, energy, and healthcare.  

Helping provide a bridge to distressed workers in the current economy is today’s challenge, but community colleges are at the epicenter of many urgent long-term education and economic issues as well: educational equity and access, workforce training and flexibility, and improving confidence in academic quality and standards. As the importance of these forces continues to grow, so will the relevance of the vital but strained community college system.

Recently, the State Higher Education Executive Officers organization (SHEEO) issued a report forecasting that the U.S. must produce one million more college graduates a year to meet the expanded needs of the U.S. economy by the year 2025. [Editor’s note: see the article by the State Higher Education Executive Officers in the September/October 2008 Change for a discussion of this recommendation.] The only realistic path to that outcome goes through our community college system. It is incumbent upon policymakers, educators, the business community, and community colleges themselves to understand the immensity of that challenge. We must ensure that the system’s capabilities expand—and that student outcomes improve—as we seek to improve our global competitiveness in the decades ahead.

In the short term, meeting the needs of newly unemployed workers is surely the most urgent challenge. In the long term, however, addressing those presented by globalization is the most complex. The costs and benefits to the United States of a worldwide economy are hotly debated in university economics departments and the op-ed pages of our leading newspapers. But the impact is felt most acutely in offices and on shop floors across the country. The substantial benefits of globalization to the U.S. economy are clear. At the same time, there are very real human costs as our economy pivots away from traditional industries to new, knowledge-based industries. Policymakers are constantly torn between the benefits of globalization while acknowledging the dislocations experienced by workers whose jobs have migrated to China, India, and elsewhere.

Community colleges can play a crucial role in helping prepare workers to become competitive in our evolving global economy. And don’t forget—the higher education officers organization is predicting the need for one million more workers with highly technical skills. So we need to address the twin challenges of re-training older workers and improving training for one million more students entering the post-secondary world.

But there are models for doing so. Take the Prosperity Partnership in the Puget Sound area in Washington. Recognizing that globalization allows companies to choose where they locate jobs, dozens of local chambers of commerce throughout the Puget Sound region, in coordination with local community colleges, four-year schools, and employers, are creating high-skill, high-wage jobs through joint training. The partnership is crafting curricula to meet specific workplace demands and providing both job placement and business recruitment services. This fruitful collaboration is just one example of the role that business-education partnerships can play in meeting the challenges of globalization.

Still, a worker without a job is often hard-pressed to pay even for the relatively modest costs of retooling at a local community college. Policymakers at all levels of government, working closely with local businesses, must create incentives for those struggling with the dislocations of globalization to gain the new skills they’ll need.

Community colleges also have an important role to play in dealing with educational inequality. Community colleges offer extraordinarily important opportunities for low-income and minority students—the groups from which our additional one million college graduates must come. They allow for flexible scheduling and are located within close proximity to where students work. And, unlike many four-year schools, their easy accessibility—in terms of cost, admissions requirements, and geographic location—means that they are less likely to create cultural and social barriers that are often intimidating to first-generation college-goers.

Simply put, in a country as diverse and complex as ours, we must rely on a system of affordable, accessible community colleges to serve as gateways to further education, quality job opportunities, and social and cultural assimilation. Community colleges are perfectly suited to play this important function. Indeed, over the years, many analysts have sought to determine why, if our pre-K-12 system routinely measures up as mediocre on international assessments, the American higher education system is still relatively robust. One of the reasons, many educators and businesspeople agree, is that it is relatively open, accessible, and flexible. The wide array of higher education options in this country can sometimes be daunting to the education consumer. But we can be proud of having a system that never closes its doors to anyone.

Elite four-year colleges and universities receive the overwhelming amount of attention from the media and the popular culture. But it is community colleges—where almost half of all college-going Americans are enrolled at any time—that are the great equalizers. Just ask William Green, the chairman and CEO of consulting giant Accenture, or Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine. Both are graduates of community colleges who used that experience to pursue four-year degrees and ascend to the top of their professions.  The challenge for all of us is to improve the quality and capacity of our community colleges without making them less accessible for the millions of students who need them. 

We also need to acknowledge that all community college experiences are not necessarily pathways to four-year bachelor degrees. Businesses need to see that certificate programs and associate degrees are often the right course for workers in their industries. Government should recognize this also, as should think-tankers and others who call for more and better-trained college graduates. Having motivated workers who have been well trained in community colleges is of immense value to our economy, and we should go to great pains to ensure that the definition of “graduate” takes that into account.

But community colleges must ensure that taxpayers as well as students are satisfied that they are achieving their mission of serving as accessible, affordable gateways to employment and further education. Community colleges are like other educational providers in our country—they must not only improve but improve continuously if they are to help their student populations compete with other higher education institutions around the world that are not standing pat. Recent studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States—once admired around the world in both the quality and access of its higher education system—is falling behind our new economic competitors in providing post-secondary learning opportunities. And, by any standard, remediation rates for first-year college students are alarming.

As a member of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, I believe that community colleges must be transparent in reporting on the academic achievement of their students. The public is entitled to no less. Programs like Achieving the Dream, funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education and other national sponsors, are helping community colleges improve their academic offerings and enhance the overall student experience. Many community colleges have seen academic quality, student retention, and graduation rates improve as a result.

Community colleges are often the forgotten piece in our country’s complex education puzzle. While subjects such as early admissions at elite colleges, research funding, and the affordability (or lack thereof) of college grab headlines, community colleges are the real workhorses of our nation’s post-secondary system. They are vital, uniquely American institutions that help deliver on the promise of American life —that equal opportunity is possible for those who are willing to work hard, sacrifice, and persevere. But community colleges are under duress, from exploding demand, poor pre-K-12 preparation, and strained budgets. From the perspective of America’s business community, there could not be a more important task than identifying—and energetically tackling—these challenges.

Arthur J. Rothkopf is senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, executive vice president of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, and president
emeritusof Lafayette College.

Achieving the Dream Partners
• American Association of Community Colleges
• Community College Leadership Program at the
University of Texas at Austin
• Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College
• Jobs for the Future
• MDRC (social-policy research group)
• Public Agenda

Managing Partner
• MDC (nonprofit focusing on innovative approaches to education and workforce issues)

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