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A Dream Preferred

The majority of students who enroll in community colleges never make it out with a credential. Some Texas schools are turning to Achieving the Dream, a national initiative that requires them to own up to their problems and improve those success rates.

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On the last afternoon in June, Byron McClenney of Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas, sits in the second-floor restaurant of the Renaissance Hotel in Austin expounding on the topic that has shaped his career: the importance of the underappreciated two-year institutions — in which most Texas college students begin their careers. Unfortunately, the majority of the students who enroll in a community college — who tend to be slightly older, more working class, and predominantly minority — never make it out with a credential. The window of opportunity to turn that stat around is rapidly closing, McClenney says, and the national prosperity is at stake.

“It is the only sector in American higher education,” McClenney says of community colleges, “that has a chance to make this country competitive in the next two decades. We have to have a great increase in student success in the very near term, or the United States is going to be a second-rate nation.”

Mark Escamilla, president of Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, and William Truehart, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, nod approvingly at McClenney’s assessment. All three came to Austin for an event welcoming its latest crop of institutions looking to better themselves by joining the Achieving the Dream initiative, which seeks to improve success rates at community colleges around the country — with Texas as its model.

Established in 2003 with a grant from the Lumina Foundation (recently supplemented by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Achieving the Dream aims to improve rates of accreditations and transfers at community colleges, a product of the industry-wide focus shift from the number of students enrolling in higher education to the number of students succeeding in it. Truehart says schools are finally casting off an attitude toward students he describes as, “You come in, you should be qualified, you should achieve individually — and if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be here.” Eight Texas schools, including Del Mar College, were granted admittance to the 2010 cohort of the Achieving the Dream project, bringing Texas’ total representation to 33 schools out of the 130 nationwide.

McClenney, who has been involved since its inception and even coaches a number of participating schools, notes with excitement that Achieving the Dream’s footprint in Texas —28 of Texas’ 50 community college districts contain participating schools — is now larger than anywhere else. That footprint stands to grow significantly, as Carol Lincoln, the national director, says that the organization will begin narrowing its focus specifically on  outcomes in Texas and Michigan with the hopes of turning the states into a national model.

After years of turmoil and turnover, Del Mar College, Escamilla’s alma mater as well as his employer since 2008, is among the latest to join Truehart’s initiative — a tacit admission that his school needs help. When he returns to Corpus Christi, Escamilla's first step will be to engage in what Achieving the Dream calls "courageous conversations" — a kind of educational administration equivalent of an Al-Anon meeting. That means openly acknowledging and discussing where the schools' faculty and leadership have failed in moving students toward graduation or other credentials. That might include a seemingly small matter of improving coordination with local public transportation for night classes, or a re-tooling of the course schedule to accommodate working students, or a complete overhaul of the institutional structure to focus on creating momentum for the large number of students who start college needing remedial classes. 

Before any of that, however, comes the essential step of getting college staffs to admit that the status quo has failed students — and to take responsibility for that failure. “First and foremost, this is an opportunity to turn the mirror on the college itself, with all the brutal facts and all the honesty that, frankly, has not existed before,” Escamilla says. “We are raising honesty and candor to a level … well, almost to a fault.”

Also at the event, Erma Johnson Hadley, president of Tarrant County College, acknowledged that community colleges have not always been eager to tackle these issues head on, and certainly not publicly. “It may be that community colleges have been defensive,” she says, “because we have very heavy burdens to lift.” At her school, more than 60 percent of students arrive unprepared for college-level work.

The Achieving the Dream philosophy revolves around data. One of the primary benefits of membership, in addition to access to a national clearinghouse of data from all participating institutions, is extensive coaching in collecting, reading and analyzing data from the members' own schools. While it sounds like a fundamental tool, data has not always played a major role in community college policy decision-making.

“Getting to a place where data is deemed a necessary tool, a regular part of conversation and a box that always has to be checked — it’s easier said than done to get there,” Escamilla says. “Not everybody wants to hear the full details.”

Speaking of details, only three of 10 full-time community college students in Texas receive any credential in six years, according to data from the Higher Education Coordinating Board. In the six years before Escamilla became president, 61 percent of the students who enrolled at Del Mar dropped out without transferring or receiving a certificate or degree.

At El Paso Community College, one of the original Achieving the Dream schools, the statistic for the period between 2001 and 2007 is a less-than-encouraging 67 percent. But a recent report from the Community College Research Center and MDRC includes encouraging signs, modest though they may be. In EPCC’s first three years in Achieving the Dream, students testing as college ready on their entrance exams increased from 3 percent to 5 percent. For reading, the college-ready population increased from 30 percent to 35 percent. The percentage of students writing on college level jumped from 51 to 66 percent. 

Report authors Monica Reid Kerrigan and Doug Slater credit some of this improvement to EPCC’s reaching out to the K-12 community, after looking at the data showing students fresh out of high school were no more prepared for college than those who had taken a year off after high school. Still, the fact that students now arrive on campus more prepared doesn't necessarily mean more of them will leave with a credential, nor does it speak to the quality of their college education. “It’s still early in the initiative, you have to understand,” Truehart says.

Trueheart readily admits that many of the recommendations of Achieving the Dream sound obvious. But knowing what must be done doesn't mean the colleges have the capacity yet to pull it off.

Escamilla, who likens running a community college to “juggling a chainsaw, bowling ball, a feather and a pencil,” welcomes the framework he expects Achieving the Dream to provide. Even seemingly simple changes, like making sure all core courses are offered at different times of day to accommodate all schedules, can cause difficulty. “When you do a cost-benefit analysis for those sort of things, and you know you have millions of dollars that have just been lost to inefficiencies,” Escamilla says. “That’s huge.”

Adding to the stress is an impending budget crisis that will force community colleges to cut back at a time when they are seeing record spikes in enrollment. “The numbers of students are encouraging,” says Judith Loredo, the assistant commissioner for P-16 initiatives at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, “but we sure wish it had happened at a time when there was more funding.”

And getting help for these institutions isn’t cheap either. Of the 33 Texas schools currently participating in Achieving the Dream, only Paris Junior College, which joined in 2007, financed its own participation. The money for this year’s group came from the Greater Texas Foundation and the Meadows Foundation. 

Johnson Hadley, who says she came away from the Austin kick-off event with “to put it lightly, a sense of exuberance,” notices a change afoot that she hopes will transform not just the productivity but the perception of community colleges — for good. “We’ve certainly been undervalued,” she says. “But I can’t say that’s the fault of anybody other than community colleges."

At the state level, according to Loredo, though they may not always be identified as such, the initiatives being pushed by the policymakers increasingly mirror the tenants of Achieving the Dream. On the national stage, community college leaders like Johnson Hadley have been encouraged by President Obama’s public discussion of the role of community colleges.

“We have the attention of the nation for the first time,” McClenney says. “And the Texas story, because of the broad involvement now, is a promising one. Of course, there’s still an enormous need for improvement.”

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