Project Graduation Moves the Needle on Completion

By Emily Rogan

How one community college rose to No. 1 in the state for graduation rates in three years.

In 2013, with a graduation rate of 16.5 percent, Bergen Community College ranked 11th out of 19 community colleges in New Jersey, in terms of completion success.

“Institutionally, the perception was that Bergen was the ‘Harvard of Community Colleges’; however, the data told a different story,” says Naydeen Gonzalez-De Jesus, vice president of student affairs. “We knew we needed to do something better for our students; we were doing something wrong.”

“That caused us to kick into action,” says Denise Liguori, dean of student services at the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center.

From that moment of clarity, Project Graduation — a Bellwether finalist and the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovation of the Year — was born.

In 2013, Gonzalez-De Jesus and Liguori began to analyze the records of more than 1,800 students who had left the college before graduating. In addition, they closely watched all students in their final semesters and discovered that 185 of them probably wouldn’t graduate.

Overly complex system

Gonzalez-De Jesus and Liguori discovered that the complex application process for graduation was confusing — and it was a primary reason that students were leaving either with all of their credits fulfilled or just a few credits shy.

“We didn’t see it as an urgency to go after the students; we were waiting for them to take the initiative,” Gonzalez-De Jesus says.

It was a “one-shot deal,” says Liguori, and “we were lackadaisical,” assuming the students would apply the following semester. But that didn’t happen, and it affected the college’s graduation rate.

Changing “The Bergen Way”

Flipping the status quo on its head in an effort to change outcomes, Gonzalez-De Jesus, Liguori and a small team of faculty members began a four-pronged approach that included, system improvements, graduation promotion and data mining.

  1. One of the first action steps was to reach out to students at various milestones, well in advance of graduation, to make sure they were on track. Then, the team automated and simplified the actual procedure so that students were contacted, without any confusion, with the onus on the college rather than the students.
  1. The team launched a campaign to promote graduation; every piece of literature and every event focused on the goal of graduation, Liguori says. Images of caps and gowns were prominently displayed around campus.
  1. After sending data to the National Student Clearinghouse, the team reached out to students who’d left and graduated them retroactively; there were more than 300 who had met requirements but didn’t graduate, Liguori says. Additionally, the team contacted former students who were missing just a few credits and gave them an opportunity to re-enroll.

Their efforts paid off: In 2013, Bergen was ranked 48th in the U.S. for graduation rates. In 2014, the college jumped to 29th. In 2015, it was 26th. And for two years in a row, Bergen has been No. 1 in New Jersey, based on the number of students graduated with associate degrees.

As they look ahead, Gonzalez-De Jesus and Liguori say they want to continue to improve rates and to share what they’ve learned with others to affect change. “Be courageous and bold enough to look at and question data and talk about the data. Don’t hide it,” Gonzalez-De Jesus says.

“Challenge your processes, and if you don’t like the results, change them so students can be successful,” Liguori says.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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