By William Trueheart, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream
“It’s time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future.” This was a directive from President Obama during the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges last week.
The summit, chaired by Second Lady Jill Biden, a Northern Virginia Community College professor, drilled home one clear message — community colleges are the linchpin for our nation’s economic success. Community colleges have been given a national spotlight, a presidential charge to reform and produce an additional 5 million graduates, $2 billion in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and Education, and significant funding from several foundations, including Lumina, Gates, and Joyce Foundations. This national platform will surely accelerate the community college reform work that is well underway. But dramatically increasing the number of graduates and helping establish America, once again, as the global leader in the increasingly competitive world economy will take the better part of a decade and will require continued investment and momentum.
The community college reformers who gathered at the White House for the Summit earlier this week needed to look no further than out the East Room window, across the river, and to into Virginia for the one of the nation’s most successful community college reform efforts underway.
Virginia’s Community College System’s (VCCS) reform efforts turns centrally on a key component — student success. Student success is at the center of all their decision-making and strategic planning. Their goal, outlined in the strategic plan (Achieve 2015), is for Virginia’s 23 community colleges to increase by 50 percent the number of students graduating, transferring, or earning a workforce credential, with a 75 percent increase for students from underserved populations.
Their leader, Chancellor Glenn DuBois, has set the bar high and intends to soar over it. How seriously does he take student success? The chancellor holds the VCCS presidents accountable for meeting student success goals at their colleges. VCCS recognized that, if they are going see the dramatic increases in degree attainment, then they must take responsibility for their actions and measure results.
However, you can’t track results and progress without data. When collected and analyzed properly, student data provides valuable input for strategic decisions ranging from budgeting and resource allocation, to faculty needs, student priorities, and curricular and classroom improvements.
Using data to make decisions may seem obvious, but for many community colleges, data-driven decision-making reflects a significant institutional cultural shift. This was the case for VCCS. After joining Achieving the Dream (ATD) in 2004, VCCS transformed their system-wide data collection and started leveraging the data to inform their policies and practices.
VCCS established a reengineering taskforce co-chaired by Northern Virginia Community College’s Robert Templin to optimize operations and improve student success. After reviewing the data, it became clear to the taskforce that low completion rates in developmental education are a major barrier to student success. Slightly more than half of all first-time students at Virginia community colleges must take a developmental course during their first fall on campus. Of those taking at least one of these courses, 69 percent enrolled in developmental math and 59 percent in developmental English. There is no way to improve graduation rates unless they improve success in these developmental courses.
This deep look through the lens of data at the success of students needing developmental coursework has resulted in a major system-wide innovation to redesign developmental education. This extraordinary redesign, to be taken to scale at all 23 colleges, has begun with developmental math, including realigning content, repackaging curriculum in one-credit modules, and developing a customized diagnostic placement tool that yields an individualized “prescription” for each student. Indeed, the committed leadership in Virginia coupled with the effective use of data to prioritize actions has yielded significant programs and progress for students.
Bringing about systemic, institutional change takes time and requires coordination between the community colleges, the community college system, and state policy makers. In Virginia, policy makers and education leaders have taken these extraordinary steps and are starting to see results. ATD is working in 15 other states, and with 130 institutions, to advance similar community college reforms and increase the number of students earning a valued credential.
Community colleges have been in the midst of this reform movement for more than five years, and the White House summit provided a welcomed national spotlight. As reformers look for successful initiatives to scale, look no further than the state of Virginia. Their powerful and concrete success can be replicated in other states throughout the country and would certainly accelerate progress towards our ambitious national goals. In the meantime, the question remains: will this national support and interest remain strong and constant through 2020?