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Kay McClenney: The TT Interview

The director of the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement on the latest research identifying how to boost lagging success rates at two-year institutions.

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In recent weeks, President Obama has joined the growing number of prominent voices calling for improvement in the country’s community colleges. And he has proposed an $8 billion program to boost job training and outcomes.

In Texas, groups including the Texas Association of Business have been aggressively ramping up discussions surrounding completion rates at community colleges. Around the Capitol, the idea of appropriating some portion of state funding based on student success — rather than simply the current enrollment-based approach — is increasingly seen as inevitable.

So how can colleges get their rates up? That’s the question Kay McClenney has been exploring in her work as director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which is housed at the University of Texas at Austin.

Each year, the center administers a number of national surveys of stakeholders in community colleges, including the Survey of Entering Student Engagement, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement and the Community College Institutional Survey.

Using data gleaned from these surveys and other sources, McClenney’s staff has compiled a report identifying policies that help students through the pipeline. Some of those policies include mandatory student orientation, accelerated developmental education, creating smaller learning communities within the institution, and offering courses that teach study skills and time management.

McClenney said the report, called “A Matter of Degrees,” would be the beginning of an ongoing data-based discussion about better serving community college students throughout the country as well as in Texas.

She talked to the Tribune last week. The following is an edited transcript:

TT: Who is the audience for this report, and what do you hope they get from it?

McClenney: This report, like all of the reports from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, is really targeted to the people who are leading and working in community colleges around the country.

Community colleges are at a pretty interesting moment in time right now. They have never had so much attention or limelight. The president, governors, legislators and others are calling for higher rates of success and more graduates with degrees and certificates from community colleges.

All of this happening, this limelight and these escalating expectations, is in the midst of draconian budget cuts.

Now more than ever, community colleges are trying to figure out how we make choices about what we do and what we stop doing with and for our students so that we’re focusing limited resources in the places that are likely to have the best positive impact on the largest possible number of students.

And so this report lifts up a set of what we’re calling promising practices that are emerging around the country. It begins to try to help community colleges try to understand what’s going on out there, what’s actually happening in the field, and over time we will add information about the relationship between students’ participation in these various educational practices and how they actually progress and complete college.

So it’s timely. And it’s important work for the community college field because there’s a lot of pressure to perform.

TT: Where is the information to identify the practices coming from?

McClenney: To identify the “promising” practices, we relied on multiple sources. First, the work of CCSSE over the last 10 years. Secondly the work of major national initiatives like Achieving the Dream and others around the country, where colleges themselves have started doing much more rigorously data-informed work focused on student success.

We build on work being done at the community college research center at Teachers College-Columbia and elsewhere around the country.

So we identified these practices. What we mean by “promising” is that we have emerging evidence from multiple institutions over multiple semesters that having these experiences like orientation or a first-year experience, or a student success course or supplemental instruction. Those experiences are associated with better outcomes for students.

So we’re putting them out there as “promising,” and we’re hoping that over time, along with some of those other colleagues around the country, to be able to tell colleges, which of these really have a high impact. Which of them are the places where you should choose to focus your energy and resources and bring practices to scale for your students.

TT: One thing that stood out to me was the section where you note how many of the schools make some of the practices you’re suggesting mandatory. It seems to me to be a very small number of them.

McClenney: I think the inscription on my gravestone is very likely to be something that I am always saying to community college audiences. It is: Students don’t do optional.

We have, in community colleges, a multitasking population of students. Many of them are working a job or two or three jobs. Many of them have families. Nearly all of them commute to school.

If it’s not mandatory, they’re not doing it, because they have other things to do. Students actually tell us that all the time.

Students use the word “mandatory” in focus groups we conduct. They say, “This should be mandatory.” That could be orientation, or a student success courses or time in the tutoring center.

We push back and say, "Do you really mean that, do you mean mandatory?” And they define the word for us. They say, “Yes, that means it should be required of all students.” So they want to make sure we understand.

There is a real reluctance to require, and I think that comes out of an abundance of empathy for college students — the community college students, in particular, with all of those competing priorities they have.

But it’s really no favor. If we as educators know that there certain kinds of experiences that are going to increase our students’ likelihood of success, then it’s our job to make those experiences a part of what it means to go to college here, whether that’s Austin Community College or San Antonio College, or Tarrant County College or Coastal Carolina College. That’s our job.

TT: Did anything surprise you, or is this a lot of stuff you already knew that is being confirmed by data?

McClenney: It’s a little bit of both, and I expect to be both confirmed and surprised along the way as we continue to work through these data. We have a mountain of data, and this report is just very preliminary and descriptive.

The surprises come in these forms. One is, first of all, these are promising practices, and yet there are very few students who are experiencing them. And so the first conclusion is community colleges are not doing everything they know about what helps students be successful.

The second, as you pointed out, sometimes the practices are offered but they’re not mandatory. They’re not made an inescapable part of the student experience. We see that in the data. 

We also see this in colleges on the ground all the time: Some colleges think that experiences are mandatory, and then when they look at their student records, they find out that their mandatory orientation is only experienced by 50 percent of their students.

Finally, we were intrigued by the disconnect, the incongruities that emerge from the data. The fact, for example, that a solid majority of community college students begin college needing at least one course in developmental education. But as it turns out, a surprisingly low percentage of students — 76 percent, for example — say that they never participated in tutoring, even though they needed developmental education. Only 13 percent of them ever participated in supplemental instruction.

Finding a better way to align what colleges offer with what students need is a big part of this work.

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