Texas community colleges are trying to ‘make the dream come true’

On the last afternoon of June, Byron McClenney of the University of Texas Community College Leadership Program sits in the second-floor restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel in Austin and discusses the topic that shaped his career: the importance of both underestimated. institutions of the year – where most Texas students begin their careers. Unfortunately, the majority of students who enroll in community college — who tend to be slightly older, more working-class, and overwhelmingly in the minority — never make it out with a degree. The window of opportunity to reverse that statistic is closing quickly, McClenney says, and national prosperity hangs in the balance.

“It’s the only sector of American higher education,” McClenney says of community colleges, “that has a chance to make this country competitive over the next two decades. We need to have a big increase in student success in the very short term, or the United States will become 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 generation of institutions looking to improve by joining the Achieving the Dream initiative, which aims to improve completion rates at community colleges across the country — with the Texas as a model.

Created in 2003 with a grant from the Lumina Foundation (recently completed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Achieving the Dream aims to improve community college accreditation and transfer rates, a product of policy change in industry-wide from the number of number of students enrolling in higher education to the number of successful students. Truehart says schools are finally getting rid of an attitude towards students which he describes as: ‘You come, you have to be qualified, you have to succeed individually – and if you don’t then you shouldn’t be here .” Eight Texas schools, including Del Mar College, were admitted to the 2010 cohort of the Achieving the Dream Project, bringing Texas’ total representation to 33 schools out of 130 nationally.

McClenney, who has been involved since its inception and has even coached a number of participating schools, enthusiastically notes that Achieving the Dream’s footprint in Texas — 28 of Texas’ 50 community college districts contain participating schools — is now bigger than anywhere else. That footprint is expected to grow significantly, as Carol Lincoln, the national director, said the organization will begin focusing specifically on results in Texas and Michigan in 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 her employer since 2008, is among the latest to join Truehart’s initiative — a tacit admission that her school needs help. aid. Upon returning to Corpus Christi, Escamilla’s first step will be to engage in what Reaching the Dream calls “courageous conversations” — a kind of educational administration equivalent to an Al-Anon meeting. This means openly acknowledging and discussing instances where faculty and school management have failed to advance students toward graduation or other degrees. This could include a seemingly minor matter of improving coordination with local public transport for evening classes, or rearranging 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 entering college in need of remedial classes.

Before all of this, however, comes the critical step of getting college staff to admit that the status quo has failed students – and to take responsibility for that failure. “First and foremost, it’s an opportunity to turn the mirror back on the college itself, with all the hard facts and all the honesty that, frankly, didn’t exist before,” Escamilla says. “We elevate honesty and candor to a level… well, almost to the point of guilt.”

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

The Achieving the Dream philosophy revolves around data. One of the main 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 schools. members. Although it seems like a foundational tool, data has not always played a major role in community college policy decision-making.

“Getting to a place where data is seen as a necessary tool, a regular part of the conversation, and a box that should always be ticked – it’s easier said than done to get there,” says Escamilla. “Not everyone wants to hear all the details.”

Speaking of specifics, only three out of 10 full-time students at Texas community colleges graduate in six years, according to data from the Higher Education Coordinating Council. In the six years before Escamilla was named president, 61% of students enrolled at Del Mar dropped out without transferring or earning 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 67% less than encouraging. But a recent report from the Community College Research Center and the MDRC includes encouraging signs, however modest. In the first three years of EPCC in Achieving the Dream, the number of students tested as college ready on their entrance exams increased from 3% to 5%. For reading, the college-ready population rose from 30% to 35%. The percentage of students writing at the college level rose from 51% to 66%.

Report authors Monica Reid Kerrigan and Doug Slater attribute some of this improvement to the EPCC’s outreach to the K-12 community, after reviewing data showing that students fresh out of high school were no more prepared for college than those who had taken a gap year. after high school. Yet the fact that students now arrive on campus better prepared does not necessarily mean that more of them will leave with a degree, nor does it affect the quality of their college education. “It’s still early in the initiative, you have to understand,” Truehart said.

Trueheart readily admits that many of Achieving the Dream’s recommendations seem obvious. But knowing what needs to be done doesn’t mean colleges still have the capacity to do it.

Escamilla, who compares running a community college to “juggling a chainsaw, a bowling ball, a pen and a pencil,” is pleased with the framework he expects Reaching the Dream to provide. Even seemingly simple changes, such as ensuring all core courses are offered at different times of the day to accommodate all schedules, can cause difficulties. “When you do a cost-benefit analysis for this stuff, and you know you have millions of dollars that have just been lost due to inefficiencies,” Escamilla says. “It’s huge.”

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

And getting help for these institutions doesn’t come cheap either. Of the 33 Texas schools currently participating in Achieving the Dream, only Paris Junior College, which joined in 2007, funded 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 walked out of the Austin launch event with “to put it mildly, a sense of exuberance,” notices a shift underway that she hopes will not only transform the productivity but the perception of community colleges – for good. “We were definitely undervalued,” she says. “But I can’t say it’s anyone’s fault other than the community colleges.”

At the state level, according to Loredo, although not always identified as such, initiatives pushed by policymakers increasingly reflect tenants of Achieving the Dream. On the national stage, community college leaders like Johnson Hadley have been encouraged by President Obama’s public debate on the role of community colleges.

“We have the nation’s attention for the first time,” McClenney said. “And the story of Texas, because of the current broad involvement, is promising. Of course, there is still a huge need for improvement.

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