Last June, the 21st-Century Center covered the first year of Earn More Than a Degree, San Diego Community College District’s marketing campaign to encourage students to earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution. One year later, the system’s three colleges awarded record numbers of associate degrees. Here are some of the factors contributing to their success.
Faced with the sobering fact that California would not have enough college graduates by 2025 to meet workforce demands, the state launched the Student Success Act in 2010, a completion agenda backed by millions of dollars.
As part of that far-reaching goal, the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) — which includes San Diego City College, San Diego Miramar College and San Diego Mesa College, as well as a large continuing-education program — kicked off its own campaign in 2014, with a goal of increasing by 10 percent the number of students who graduate with an associate degree each year.
Just two years in, the results are significant: SDCCD has awarded 3,600 degrees — an increase of 45 percent since 2014, says Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services. For this academic year, the overall increase is 9 percent, and “I predict we’ll be at 10 percent when all is said and done,” Neault says. The colleges are continuing to award degrees to students through the summer.
In addition, two of every three degrees were awarded to students of color, which is a reflection of the student population the colleges serve and highlights the district’s concerted effort to focus on equity and increasing the “success and retention of underrepresented groups,” Neault says.
Mesa College is now a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution, which means it receives federal funding for those efforts, says Jack Beresford, director of communications and public relations for SDCCD.
The concept of student success and equity — discovering and meeting the needs of each student — is “driving research and the different ways that the colleges serve students,” Neault says.
Specific efforts SDCCD has made to increase student engagement and retention include the following:
- Created small-group learning communities in campus buildings that are equipped with whiteboards and workspaces for students to study together; research has linked student success to this type of engagement.
- Encouraged faculty (particularly those of diverse backgrounds) to coordinate and reach out to students rather than expect students to seek out support.
- Assessed and revamped how developmental courses are taught, focusing more on acceleration, so students don’t get stuck in these courses.
Changes beyond the numbers
In year one, the Earn More Than a Degree campaign focused on completion; this year the emphasis has been on jobs open to workers with an associate degree, Beresford says.
And while last year’s campaign relied on posters and social media to deliver the completion message, this year, “we’re taking it to a more granular level,” Beresford says. “The most influential level is peer-to-peer communication. They’re hearing [the message] from the first day they walk on campus.”
The completion campaign is also changing perceptions of an associate degree. Students are participating in graduation ceremonies in record numbers, Neault says. “We’re battling the perception that it’s not a real degree or college; that’s changing on campuses.”
During graduation preparation, outreach teams from the colleges gave alumni keychains to the students and encouraged them to sign up for the alumni database to stay in touch.
“All of our colleges are very different,” says Neault, “but the overarching goals are the same.”