Thousands of students at community colleges nationwide stand to benefit from a national effort ñ Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count.
The multi-year initiative is aimed at improving the success of community college students, particularly those in groups that have been underserved in higher education. In the first phase of the program, funded by Lumina Foundation for Education and involving several national partner organizations, 27 colleges in five states are collecting data to use to develop plans to address this challenge.
“This is not a one-time analysis,” says Carol Lincoln, senior associate at MDC, Inc., the organization managing the Achieving the Dream initiative. ìWe want these colleges to look at their data every year and make decisions based on how well their students are doing and how well the institution is responding to their needs,î she says.
Across the United States nearly 1,200 community colleges play a vital role in higher education. They enroll more than 11.5 million students ñ nearly half of all undergraduates ñ and they attract high proportions of low-income, minority and first-generation college students. In 2002, community colleges enrolled 47 percent of the nationís African-American students, 56 percent of Hispanic students and 57 percent of Native American students.
Despite their crucial role, community colleges face enormous challenges — and these challenges take a toll on student success. Nearly half of all students enrolled in community colleges fail to complete their postsecondary education. A recent study by the Community College Research Center shows that among students seeking an associate’s degree or higher, only 53 percent earned a degree or transferred to a four-year institution within eight years of initial enrollment.
Completion rates can vary widely by race. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that of all students enrolled in community colleges in 1995-96, only 26 percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Hispanic students attained a certificate or degree within six years. This compares with 38 percent of white students and 39 percent of Asian students.
ìCommunity colleges have become much more central to the needs of states and the nation,î says Byron McClenney, a retired community college president who is involved with Achieving the Dream in his position as project director at the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas, Austin. ìOur countryís demographics have shifted, and community colleges need to be responsive to these demographic changes,î he says.
Indeed, U.S. Census data show that from 2000 to 2025 the white working-age population will decline by 5 million while the Latino working-age population will increase by 18 million.
In Achieving the Dreamís first phase, Lincoln says, colleges are gathering data showing student completion rates, semester-to-semester retention rates and more. Schools also are completing an audit of their current policies and practices to determine if they are helping or hindering students. And they are seeking input from their community leaders about specific needs the college can address.
During this phase one participating college realized that the state was calculating graduation rates by including only those students who had already completed 18 credit hours. When the college looked at its overall graduation rates, the numbers were much lower. ìThe other numbers told us a very real story about what was going on with the students,î Lincoln says.
The community colleges, which are in Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, all serve high proportions of underserved students. To participate in the initiative, each college had to have an enrollment of at least 33 percent minority students or 50 percent first-time, first-year Pell Grant recipients. The colleges received a $50,000 grant from the Foundation to complete the information-gathering phase of the project. Based on the information they gather, each college will be eligible for additional Lumina Foundation funding to support the programs they design to better serve their students.
Each school also has a ìcoachî and a ìdata facilitatorî to help the teams work together and collect all pertinent information. Many of the coaches are retired community college presidents, so they are familiar with the challenges these colleges face.
ìTheir role,î says McClenney, ìis to help the colleges see the issues identified with the data as essential to the way they plan for the future.î McClenney is the coach for three of the community colleges participating in Achieving the Dream, and he oversees the 12 coaches working with the other 24 colleges.
Lincoln says the project is unique for a variety of reasons:
- It has a strong emphasis on data. ìWeíre trying to make sure that everything that is done has evidence behind it,î she says.
- It is working to make changes at the state and national levels so that colleges are not hampered or limited by certain policies.
- It is building public awareness of the important role community colleges have in higher education.
- It is developing a knowledge base of research on student success.
- It is fostering a long-term partnership among many organizations that can help strengthen community colleges.
ìThe Achieving the Dream initiative seeks a clear set of outcomes,î McClenney says. ìColleges will significantly increase their graduation rates and close the performance gaps between whites and minorities. It will level the playing field for all students.î
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|Achieving the Dream Partners
Lumina Foundation for Education has joined forces with several partners with significant community college expertise for Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count. They include: