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Tracking Student Success at California’s Community Colleges

By Heather Boerner

The chancellor of the California Community Colleges shares seven ways his system has increased student success.

In 2011, California’s 112 community colleges were at capacity and budgets were shrinking. Instead of focusing on the problem, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors asked for a solution — one that would increase student success while maintaining access.

That solution seems to be working. According to the recently released California Community Colleges 2014 State of the System Report, the system awarded 40 percent more certificates and degrees in 2013-2014 than four years earlier; the number of students eligible to transfer to the California State University system doubled over the previous academic year; and more students than ever completed courses in remedial math, English and English as a second language.

“Access without a reasonable promise of success is a hollow promise,” says Brice Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. “So we in California have focused on restoring access that a lot of colleges have lost over the last three or four years, and then enhancing the experience to contribute to student success.”

Here, Harris shares seven keys to California’s success so far.

1. Focus, focus, focus.

If Harris could give only one piece of advice, it would be this: Focus. Focus. Focus again.

“We have hundreds of legislative initiatives addressed to us every year; every think tank in the country has advice on how we should do our work,” he says. “We’re constantly being approached by people who hold up bright, shiny objects and invite us to do this or that. What we tried in the last three years is to focus on restoring access and improving success in everything we do. Believe me, it’s hard. Every day, someone’s got another great idea that they want you to think about undertaking.”

2. Remedial education is the linchpin to success.

All metrics matter, says Harris. But he believes remedial education success matters most. In California, three out of four community college students arrive needing remedial help in math, English or English as a second language. “Remedial English, math and English as a second language are fundamental to our long-term success. They are the building blocks for higher levels of attainment.”

3. State support is essential to systemwide success.

In 2011, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved 22 recommendations to improve success at community colleges. So far, two-thirds of the recommendations have been enacted, and Harris expects the rest to be fully in place by the end of the calendar year. The state mandate has made success a priority, Harris says.

Remedial English, math and English as a second language are fundamental to our long-term success.

 4. Use registration to incentivize completion.

“We’ve basically said [to students] that if you do educational planning and assessment, you move to the front of the line” when registering for classes, Harris says. “That has created an incentive for students to participate in behavior that helps students be more successful. Another is to say to students, ‘You can’t just hang around and accumulate units endlessly.’ At 100 units, they drop to the back of the line. That’s incentivized students to finish their education.”

 5. Use technology to support completion.

To better help students complete their coursework, the California system is adding three new forms of technology in the areas of assessment, online educational planning and online education accessibility. “Those three things are starting to have an impact,” Harris says.

6. Mine metrics to improve success rates.

Community college leaders know that a focus on data can yield positive results. Harris boils this down further: “Just paying attention to degrees, certificates and course completion rates or the completion of 30 units, which is one of those momentum points, makes a difference.”

That’s exactly what leaders at individual colleges in California are doing, he says. “Data can be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, so those colleges can close performance gaps,” he says. “Basically, it provides researchers with all the data they’d want to help faculties help students.”

7. Don’t go it alone.

When the going gets tough in California, Harris reaches out to community college leaders in other states facing similar accountability and reform challenges. “Every time we’ve hit a rough spot on the road to reform, we’ve referred to a national movement that’s hand in hand with what we’re trying to do,” he says. “It would be harder to do this work if we felt alone. And we’re not alone.”

What has helped move the needle on student success at your community college? Tell us in the Comments.

Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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