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Richard Rhodes: The TT Interview

The president of Austin Community College on graduation rates, how the state can boost student success and the mission of community colleges.

Austin Community College President, Richard Rhodes

As the product of community college education himself, Richard Rhodes has a unique perspective on the metrics used to gauge the success of the kinds of schools he now leads.

Rhodes, the president of Austin Community College, began his higher education at a community college in Alamogordo, N.M., before transferring to New Mexico State College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his doctoral degree in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin. Before taking the helm of Austin Community College in September, he spent a decade as the president of El Paso Community College.

In late October, not long after Rhodes’ arrival in the city, the Texas Association of Business put up a billboard in Austin for one day criticizing the community college’s measly 4 percent three-year graduation rate. Earlier this month, the association put up a similar billboard in Dallas for three days, targeting the local community college district’s 8 percent three-year graduation rate.

Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, has been a strong advocate for changing the current enrollment-based state funding formulas for community colleges to a more outcomes-focused system that rewards schools for degree completions. "We want to raise the issue of completions in Texas," Hammond recently told The Texas Tribune.

Rhodes wants the system changed, too. But he doesn't believe community colleges should be evaluated solely on graduation rates.

Using himself as an example, Rhodes explains that, even though he earned his degree, he would count against the graduation rate of either institution he attended as an undergraduate. The measurement only accounts for the ultimate success of first-time students in higher education who graduate from the college or university they initially entered.

Because Rhodes neither graduated from his initial college nor began his journey at his ultimate university, he wouldn't count toward either of them. In fact, he said, the measurement only accounts for slightly more than 5 percent of the student body at Austin Community College.

Rhodes proposes a “momentum points” system that provides funding to colleges based on their ability to help their students get to each milestone on the way to a diploma or certificate instead of merely focusing on graduation rates.

Outcomes-based funding — including momentum points for community colleges — was on the table in the last legislative session, but lawmakers ultimately decided not to implement it, at least not yet.

Recently, Rhodes sat down with the Tribune to talk about graduation rates, how the state can boost student success and the mission of community colleges.

The following is a video of highlights from that exchange along with an edited transcript.

TT: How do you respond to the Texas Association of Business’s billboard?

Rhodes: Actually, I’m kind of glad they bring it to the forefront, because it gives us the opportunity to talk about it — to talk about metrics, and how we measure the accountability of community colleges and of colleges and universities in general.

When you take a look at one metric, that metric being graduation rates, it’s an antiquated metric. That metric doesn’t really tell the story. The metric was designed to evaluate how athletes do at universities, how they persist at universities. They were never designed to measure the numbers of graduates or how effective or efficient colleges and universities are.

What you’re doing is you’re ignoring 95 percent of the student body and saying it’s not important what they did. And we believe it is. We believe, and we’ve started the campaign at ACC — “Students Count.” All of our students count and what they do.

So there are numerous metrics. And we’re not afraid of accountability. We want to be held accountable, but we want to make sure that the metrics are the appropriate metrics to measure the success of our students.

TT: How should we look at community colleges?

Rhodes: You look at all the various missions of a community college, and they’re all important. They are all very important to the productivity, and to the business and to workforce and community development as a whole. But we don’t value them, because we say, we want to use this one metric called “graduation rate.” Well, that’s not what a lot of students want out of Austin Community College. 

They want skills to be employed. They want some hours to transfer. They want to be able to take college credit hours during the summer when they’re not at the university. They want to take dual credit in high school. They want to have an early college high school experience.

All of these different needs come into play. We have to understand what those needs are and we have to value the improvement, the success that we make as a result of fulfilling those different individual parts of our mission.

TT: What does the state need to do to bolster student success?

Rhodes: The policy issue within the state is to say, “Do we as a state value associate degrees or certificates at community colleges?” 

If we value that, then we ought to have state policy that encourages students and rewards students to complete what they start at a community college. We don’t have that policy in the state of Texas like they do in the state of Florida, like they're doing in the state of North Carolina, where there are some rewards or incentives that go along with completing what you start at a community college.

The incentives are automatic admission to a four-year university, or guaranteed transferability on a statewide basis of all of your 60 college credit hours — guaranteed so it’s not institution-to-institution.

TT: Is there a way to provide incentives for colleges to perform better?

Rhodes: What I like is something that the state of Washington adopted with some funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s called “momentum points.” It looks at the progress of a student from where they enter the community college and what their skill level was and how we help to progress them from one level to the next and to recognize, celebrate and reward for each one of those benchmark points.

So we start with that student who comes to us. They dropped out of high school. The benchmark is when they actually get the GED. We should recognize, celebrate that.

Or a student comes to us and they need English as a second language. When they complete the requirements of the ESL program, we should recognize that celebrate that as a momentum point in their progression.

TT: Why can’t you improve performance by increasing selectivity?

Rhodes: Because it’s not what’s best for the state of Texas. It’s not what’s best for Austin, the community.  Our students, our citizens deserve the opportunity.

If we don’t serve them, who is?

I hate to make this comparison, but if you want to see what happens to a population where education is not supported and you end up with two very distinct and different classes of citizens, you can look at where I came from. Go right across the border to Juárez, Mexico.

You’ll see the violence when a population is not educated and it does not see hope. What education does is it provides hope.

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