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Report Lauds Student Completion Efforts at 5 N.C. Community Colleges

By Sonya Stinson

A look at what five North Carolina community colleges are doing to increase student completion rates.

More often than not, improving student success at community colleges requires institutional culture change, if not outright transformational change. A recent report shines a light on nine community colleges that are in the midst of making major changes in their quest to seriously move the needle on student completion.

Policy Meets Pathways: A State Policy Agenda for Transformational Change, a December 2014 report from the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF), named five North Carolina community colleges, along with three in Ohio and one in Florida, as outstanding models of the laser-like focus on student success and completion the organization champions.

We took a closer look at what the five singled-out North Carolina community colleges are doing to earn this praise.

Completion by Design driving changes

The North Carolina colleges JFF lauds in the report — Guilford Technical, Central Piedmont, Davidson County, Martin and Wake Technical community colleges — have all adopted a reform initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called Completion by Design. R. Edward Bowling, director of Completion by Design for the North Carolina cadre of colleges, says the initiative adds a new element to the reforms the state community college system have already undertaken, including revising its developmental programs and making it easier to transfer credits to four-year institutions.

“Completion by Design leverages those reforms,” Bowling says, “but it’s really more about process change, cultural change and the transformation of the student experience — from the time they first come in all the way through to completion.”

Administrators from the North Carolina cadre have spent the past three years planning and implementing the improvements they wanted to make on their campuses. They’ve also begun sharing what that process has taught them: The Student Success Learning Institute is a six- to eight-week program of webinars and face-to-face meetings, in which college administrators receive technical support and expert advice on program design while they create their own action plans for student completion reform.

So far, 40 of North Carolina’s 59 community colleges have participated in the institute, paving the way for Completion by Design to scale up and expand across the Tar Heel state.

Three success points

Bowling says the most impactful ideas to come out of the Completion by Design experience fall into three categories:

Clear, well-articulated programs of study. Taking into account their aptitude and career goals, administrators and faculty members help students identify the appropriate course of study. The colleges also deemphasize electives that don’t count toward completion of the selected degree or certificate.

Accelerated paths to completion. The North Carolina Completion by Design colleges have streamlined the degree pathways for some technical programs. “We’ve been able to reduce the total number of hours needed to complete those associate of applied science degrees because we recognized that there were duplications of student learning outcomes,” Bowling says. The colleges are also providing extra help to students in developmental courses to more quickly move them into credential-earning programs.

Proactive and intrusive advising. All students have assigned advisers who keep close tabs on them and can alert faculty members when students face challenges that may jeopardize their completion. At some Completion by Design colleges, faculty members have added advising to their teaching load; Guilford Tech, for example, has implemented a program to train faculty members in advising students. While at other institutions, student services administrators are taking on advising functions, such as mapping out credit-transfer strategies, on top of their usual duties. “When you have transformational activities going on, it stands to reason that the roles people play in each institution are going to change,” Bowling says.

Has the drive to improve student success changed the culture at your community college? Tell us how in the Comments.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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