Community College – flipping the notion of second chances and self-worth

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Matt Reed, who blogs for Inside Higher Ed under the moniker “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” hit the nail on the head when he commented on the distinction between community colleges and four-year institutions. In “Standing Calvin on His Head” (Reed, 2/12/15), he discusses how community colleges provide opportunities for students who have often seen little respect (both external and internal) for their educational merit and personal value.

They [Community Colleges] assume that all students are worthy of respect, and that there’s enough success to go around.  They assume that you can’t tell who’s capable just by looking at them, so you have to give everyone a shot. You do that because the students are worth it. They’re worth it before they even get here. If anything, the burden is on the institution to prove itself worthy of the students.

Read the full article here.

Reed was responding to an editorial by Kristin O’Keefe (The Community College/’Real College’ Divide, 2/11/15, New York Times. O’Keefe’s editorial posed a sensitive response to an educator speaking about high school graduation criteria to parents and incoming high school freshman. She then went on to say that these were the minimums if your child would “go to real college – you know, not community college.”

Besides the absolute insensitivity to the real possibility that there were community college graduates in the room, her comments spoke to a divide that persists among attitudes towards those who make community college their choice for higher education. And a myriad of reasons – apart from being prepped for higher ed – may exist in making that choice. O’Keefe explains that community college students who succeed, or at least persist over long periods of time, have characteristics worthy of our respect.

To all those who had a college experience like mine: Imagine adding a full-time job, financial worries and family obligations to your mix of classes? Imagine if your bus is late or your babysitter didn’t show up? I know this: Any student who is able to juggle a multitude of responsibilities and earn a degree is impressive. Wouldn’t that be a person you’d want to hire?

Read the article in the New York Times by O’Keefe that precipitated Reed’s blog.

Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!

Determining the Completion Arch for Community College Students

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Over 500 sources of data are now being brought together to create a new educational tool to follow the completion of community college students on national and statewide levels. The Chronicle for Higher Education recently reported about this new tool, called The Completion Arch, being offered by RTI International. Asking “What really happens at Community Colleges?” the new tool is intended to track community college students along five stages of their educational progress: Enrollment, Developmental Education Placement, Progress, Transfer and Completion, and Employment Outcomes. To make the tools more useful, the designers have made every attempt to use the latest data sources. For instance, I was able to pull the Fall 2014 data for the state of Michigan on some basic enrollment characteristics.

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In addition, when I pulled up transfer and completion for Michigan, it gave me graduation rates for first-time, full-time students. The data showed that among full-time degree or certificate seeking students in Michigan who started in 2009, about 15% graduated within 150% of normal time (2 yrs for Associates degree).

As an aside from me: 15% is a low rate. But for those who work at community colleges, we know that full-time students who are “first-time” in higher education comprise a fairly low percentage of the overall enrollment. A larger portion are returning adults who stop in and out of higher ed, are attending part-time while balancing families and jobs. Their completion rates would be better considered over a 200 or even 300% of “normal” time (100% = 2 years for an Associates degree).

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The narrative provided beneath each of the charts provides further details in order to understand the data.

Data Challenges

This data tool is an extremely ambitious project and there is strong need for this kind of compilation across the myriad of sources that can influence the direction of community college curriculum, policies and actions. But there are some weaknesses, especially at the state-level information which is either missing all together or incomplete, according to the Chronicle’s author, Max Lewontin, in the article from October 22, 2014.

Although the tool was originally launched in 2012, it has been expanded and the future vision includes possibly allowing community colleges to add their own data to the system. There is a lot of potential to this tool if the data can be compiled with more depth. It is definitely worth looking at, and could even be an interesting tool to discuss with your students on the use of data in decision-making.

You can find The Completion Arch here:

And the Chronicle article here.

Two Simultaneous Conversations in Education – Part I – The Completion Conversation

There are two simultaneous conversations that have a direct impact on community colleges: College Completion, and General Education. These two topics are often discussed under the general area of College Pathways, the latest in a series of reforms aimed at improving college completion for community college students.

In two recent articles, the cross-over relationship between college completion and general (aka liberal) education begin to emerge. The first article is discussed here in Part I. A discussion about the second article will be shared in Part II.

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The League for Innovation in the Community College published a Learning Abstract titled “Community College Voices in the National Completion Conversation” that shared the compilation of a discussion during a session at one of their Learning Summits in order to bring faculty to the national conversation. They posed what seemed like a simple question:

What does completion mean to you?

This lead to a discussion not unlike those that have occurred at Mott Community College, and many other community colleges across the nation. And the results were just as diverse but fell into two themes:

1) Students fulfilling their own goals.

2) Students earning credentials.

For the first major theme above, the goals could be broken down into smaller increments such as “students accomplish what they came to do” or even “good grades” or “success at each increment.” The second major theme was more direct referencing the certificate, degree or transfer, but also mentioned issues related to employment and “workforce preparedness”.

Some members of the group addressed a third category labeled “Other Approaches” which looked at completion from the perspective of different stakeholders.

Another question that was posed included:

What Issues and Concerns to you have about the completion agenda?

The themes that resulted from the conversation on this question were:

1) Academic Rigor and Relevance.

2) Student Support.

3) Student Preparedness.

4) Student Funding.

5) Institutional Funding.

6) Employability.

7) Driving the Agenda.

8) Defining Terms.

9) Completion Goals.

10) Data.

and

11) College Challenges

The themes, as you might expect, address a variety of sometimes contentious issues with the element of “definition” being a recurring underlying theme. For instance, there was concern about the inconsistency of who defines completion, especially when different stakeholders and external organizations impact the conversation.

When the question changed to one about promise, a stronger consensus emerged.

What promise do you see in the national focus on completion?

A sub-question that followed was: “Why are we doing this if there are no promises?” The resulting conversation seemed more positive.

1) The national conversation.

2) Collaboration.

3) Retention.

4) Benefits for Students.

5) Benefits for Community.

6) Benefits for the College.

What are the big questions you have regarding student success and completion?

The participants were asked to come up with their own “Big Questions” which then were grouped into five categories:

1) The definition of completion.

2) Engaging and Supporting students to completion and careers.

3) Employability and a Living Wage.

4) Joining the conversation.

5) College needs.

To read about these themes and the conversations and questions that swirled within them, see the full article at the League for Innovations website at this link.