Keeping the Focus on Completion

By Emily Rogan

In this Q&A, Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio, talks about how the college is graduating more students.

JohnsonSinclair Community College traces its roots to 1887, when David A. Sinclair, through the Dayton Ohio YMCA, began offering evening classes in bookkeeping and mechanical drawing to unemployed men in the community. Through the years, the college has maintained its commitment to the community, focusing on access, workforce development and, most recently, completion. Today, Sinclair surpasses the national average for completion rates. The school has been affiliated with the League for Innovation in the Community College, Achieving the Dream, Community College Survey of Student Engagement, and Completion By Design, just to name a few organizations, all with the goal of graduating more students every year.

Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair since 2003, shares his thoughts about the college’s philosophy, faculty and staff and what he hopes for the future.

How did student completion become so important at Sinclair?
Fifteen years ago, the long-standing focus nationally was on access, not completion. As one of the oldest community colleges, Sinclair had come a long way with access and workforce training aligned with our region. Access with excellence was already well instilled at Sinclair, but we probably didn’t have as many good systems. We had a number of good pilot projects, but they weren’t necessarily connected to the overall goal.

One of the things that really got us going was the League for Innovation in the Community College. It works to catalyze and support innovation in teaching and learning. It picked 12 colleges and had us focus on teaching and learning. We had to meet regularly with the other colleges, and everything was about how we put students at the center of everything and about student completion.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen 75 percent improvement. We look at graduation rates, certificate completion, college credit, and transfer rates, as well as students in good academic standing who are making progress even though they’ve been here for five years.

What has your staff’s response been to all these initiatives?
The people at Sinclair are amazing. They love their community, and they love their students. If there’s one thing … they totally live the mission. They know we’re about access and completion, teaching and learning. They understand why they come to work to make our community a better place. They come to work to break the back of poverty, to provide access to an education where there isn’t access otherwise.

If you come to work at Sinclair, you know what we’re about. We start every meeting at Sinclair with a photograph of the Big Room (the University of Dayton’s arena, where Sinclair’s graduation ceremony is held). We literally say the words, “This is about getting more people into the Big Room.”

The reason you can look at Sinclair today as a college with a lot going for it in terms of the completion agenda is because we have hundreds of faculty and staff for whom it’s become habit.

How have you pared down the numerous programs you’ve tried?
The key to success within a college is that the engagement of the faculty and staff is really high, and they’re making decisions. They are capable of looking at a pilot program and saying, “This isn’t working.”

Budget cuts and reorganization give us an opportunity to see what would be better done a different way. We merged academic advising and tutoring functions together. We melded career services with another department and made it more efficient.

There are a number of faculty and staff and administrators who have a habit of working to make those initiatives more effective as time goes on. You have to watch over three to five years and see how it unfolds.

What moments have been your proudest?
When we applied for Completion By Design, we were an underdog. It was very competitive, and we won because there was a lot of heart, and we did a good job of convincing them that we would be good stewards of their resources to improve completion. That was a big deal.

I also love the moment in the Big Room during graduation, when the students come across the stage and we shake their hands.

What frustrates you?
I get frustrated when we work really, really hard to break the back of poverty and to develop a strong workforce and our funding has been going down. We have no debt. We have the lowest tuition in the state. We raise a lot of money to support students, and we work to be community-aligned. But there’s this anti-higher education attitude about all of us. And it’s really kind of destructive, especially because we’re making good progress.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you do?
I would wave it three times. On the first pass, everyone in our community would understand that it’s normal to complete high school and education after high school.

Then I’d deal with the math problem; people who would be otherwise successful run into the math wall.

And then I’d stop giving poor people who go to college the least resources. It’s so horribly funded, yet the population that’s growing is the poor and at risk. Instead of pouring resources into universities and grad schools that have become all-inclusive luxury resorts, we’d put them into programs for people who need to get a job, need to get training and access.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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