NC community colleges sharpen focus on graduating more students

Wake Tech Community College associate professor Rhoderick Fleming, right, works with student Jeremy Mendoza on a math problem during a tutoring session at Wake Tech Community College on Jan. 9, 2015.
Wake Tech Community College associate professor Rhoderick Fleming, right, works with student Jeremy Mendoza on a math problem during a tutoring session at Wake Tech Community College on Jan. 9, 2015.

After five decades of opening their doors widely to students, North Carolina community colleges have a sharper focus now on getting them out the door with career-enhancing degrees and certificates.

The colleges are changing the way they operate – upping their game to improve the completion rates of students who are in the hunt for two-year degrees and job training credentials.

North Carolina’s approach has been gaining national attention at a time when President Barack Obama is putting an emphasis on community colleges to improve the country’s degree attainment rate. Obama’s free community college proposal – mentioned in Tuesday’s State of the Union address – may be dead on arrival in Congress, but Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, have placed more importance on community colleges to grow jobs and lead students to economic success.

A December report by the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future singled out nine community colleges in North Carolina, Ohio and Florida as models for accelerating students toward the academic finish line. The report said that despite many changes nationally in the past decade, other states have not taken large enough steps to improve graduation rates.

“They are routinely looked to in the national conversations about improving college completion, as a state that’s really on the leading edge,” said the report’s author, Lara Couturier, whose organization advises North Carolina and other states on policy.

The five North Carolina colleges – Guilford Tech, Central Piedmont, Davidson, Martin and Wake Tech community colleges – are part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program called “Completion by Design.” It aims to revamp the student experience with the target of getting students across the academic finish line. The Gates-funded practices are now spreading across North Carolina through learning institutes set up for administrators.

A culture change

It’s one of 15 initiatives that have added up to a new way of operating for North Carolina colleges. The changes have been gradual, in the works for several years, but became fully implemented this academic year.

Colleges have drastically pared down their course offerings, streamlined remedial education, launched intensive advising programs and required orientation and student success courses for first-year students. The idea, leaders say, is to help students decide what they want to study and give them a clear, prescribed pathway on how to make it to their goal.

North Carolina’s community college system president, Scott Ralls, calls it a culture change, a new way of thinking about what’s best for students.

Too often, students got sidetracked by too many options in the course catalog. They would rack up credits that didn’t transfer to a four-year university or add up to a diploma or certificate.

He likens it to a walk in the woods: the clearer the path, the greater likelihood of success.

“It’s important to get students on a pathway as early as possible, that it’s structured and you can see the end from the beginning,” he said.

In a classroom with banks of computers at Wake Tech this month, 14 students are working at their own pace, with their instructor stopping to help. This is what’s known as a “developmental math” class, which used to be called remedial math. The students here have to make it through what is essentially a repeat of high school math before they can get to the real stuff – their major.

Meredith Hauser, 18, of Willow Springs, sits in the back row but she’s clicking along with the online modules. She knew she wanted to work in the medical field, but she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do. An orientation class at Wake Tech helped her decide. She took personality tests and looked at starting salaries for various fields, such as medical assistant and dental hygiene.

Now she knows that she wants to work in radiology, so she’s headed to the radiography program. But first she has to do the math and developmental reading and other prerequisites. She’s in the computer lab daily, getting through the online exercises at her own pace. The math modules, she said, are really efficient, and she learned how to study in a “student success” course at Wake Tech.

She’s aiming for a 2017 graduation.

“I have a 3-year old at home, so I’m trying to get in here and get out,” she said.

In 2011, 69 percent of recent high school graduates placed into one remedial course in North Carolina, according to the system. About 10 percent of the community college budget was spent on these courses.

An important change was to revamp the math course.

Hauser’s math professor, Rhoderick Fleming, said he sees a difference with the redesigned math program.

“I like it because I see the retention rates improve,” Fleming said. “They don’t stay in developmental math as long. You don’t lose as many students.”

Improving graduation

Graduation rates of community college students nationally have been very low, historically. Only 39.1 percent of students who entered a public, two-year college in the United States in 2008 had earned a credential six years later, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The rates are much higher – 57 percent – for those who attend full time.

The N.C. Community College System calculated its six-year completion rate at 41 percent for those who entered in 2004. The new goal is 59 percent for the students who entered last fall to remain continuously enrolled, complete a credential or transfer to a four-year school.

Ralls called the new benchmark “a big reach for us.” But if it works, the colleges will double the number of people who complete a credential by 2020.

A key to getting students to graduation day is advising, say community college leaders.

Davidson Community College, which has about 3,700 curriculum students, uses “intrusive advising” to remain in closer contact with its students. The college increased its advising staff from three to nine with the Gates grant and a reallocation from its budget.

“They’ve got to hunt the students down and get in their face and be really honest about what they’ve got to do to be successful,” said Susan Burleson, Davidson’s vice president of student success and communication.

Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, has worked with North Carolina on the changes.

“It’s rethinking the (student’s) path, starting with the end in mind and then providing this on-ramp to programs,” Jenkins said, “and once students are in programs, very carefully tracking their progress using technology, and human advisers intervening when students are going off track.”

Columbia researchers will be watching the outcomes, he added.

“North Carolina is a leader in this,” Jenkins said. “This is a very new way of operating for the community colleges.”