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COVER STORY: Sowing Seeds, Bearing Fruit

By Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week
Success Initiatives Push Degree Conferrals Past 1 Million

Photo courtesy Ivy Tech Community College
The student success agenda is increasing the number of degrees awarded by community colleges.

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Sowing Seeds, Bearing Fruit
Success Initiatives Push Degree Conferrals Past 1 Million
By Paul Bradley, editor, Community College Week

The seeds of success for the colleges populating Community College Week’s 2013 Top 100 Associate Degree Producers listings were sown years earlier.

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“Those efforts are just now beginning to bear fruit,” said Richard Carpenter, chancellor of the Lone Star College System in Texas. “You measure the numbers from year to year, but the work begins much earlier. Our board has made student success its top priority. For the past three or four years, not a meeting goes by where we don’t talk about completion.”

It was in 2009 that President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative, proposing spending $10 billion so community colleges could improve facilities, develop new technologies and boost graduation rates. While Obama’s efforts ultimately fell short — community colleges got only $2 billion for workforce development — the president created a new imperative for community colleges: no longer was access enough; colleges now had to ensure students actually earned a credential.

That new focus is slowly yielding results. In 2011-12, according to CCWeek’s analysis, the number of associate degrees conferred by community colleges exceeded 1 million for the first time, an 8 percent jump from a year earlier.

Lone Star ranked third among two-year institutions, and 10th overall, in the number of associate degrees conferred, with 4,208, a 27 percent increase from a year earlier. It awarded 1,135 degrees to Hispanic students, ranking it eighth overall and representing a 55 percent increase from the year before.

“We’ve tried to make this a sustained effort, with the emphasis on sustained,” Carpenter said. “You have to work on it every day.”

Lone Star has taken numerous steps to increase student success. It created an Office of Completion, which integrates various student support initiatives into an overall completion agenda. Over the past 18 months, the college has led the statewide Texas Completes program to identify, address and eliminate obstacles to student success and implement procedures and policies to speed a student’s completion.

LCSC’s Office of Completion oversees the Texas Completes project. Its work has produced several success-oriented initiatives, including common, mandatory new student orientation and requiring students to declare a program of study in their first year.

Yet while colleges are making small strides in boosting the number of degrees they are awarding, big obstacles remain. Overall graduation rates remain poor. Employers gripe about a yawning gap between the job skills they need and the capabilities of job seekers. And colleges are beset with a recession-fueled retreat in state funding, even as their needs grow.

At Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, for example, administrators are grappling with a $68 million budget deficit which threatens to close as many as a quarter of the college’s 72 sites around the state.

Earlier this month, college trustees voted to increase tuition by $5 per credit hour, a 4 percent increase, for the next two years. The move is expected to close the budget gap by $10 million.

The vote came the same week as CCWeek’s analysis showed that Ivy Tech ranks first among two-year institutions, and third overall, with 8,940 degrees conferred in the 2011-12 academic year. That figure represents a 12 percent increase from a year earlier.

Part of the reason that Ivy Tech rests atop CCWeek’s rankings is because the college is a statewide system, with all of its campuses and centers included in the overall number. Still, the number “reflects the progress we are making in getting more students to completion,” said college President Thomas J. Snyder.

“It’s now a priority for all community colleges,” he said.

Ivy Tech is viewed as a key to Indiana’s workforce development efforts, as well as a critical solution to the state’s lackluster performance in producing residents with college degrees. But ever since Ivy Tech was chartered as Indiana’s statewide community college in 2005, it has been underfunded, Snyder said. The situation only worsened when students poured into the system after the 2008 recession.

“The facilities themselves are woefully under built,” Snyder said. “Our student to adviser ratio is 1000-1. Most colleges try to get to 500-1.”

Snyder said while 47 percent of all students enrolled in public colleges in Indiana attend Ivy Tech, the state gets just 14 percent of the higher education appropriations. More than 160,000 students are enrolled in Ivy Tech campuses statewide, and the college received about $200 million in state appropriations in the most recent budget year. About 187,000 students are enrolled in all of the other state colleges and universities combined, and those schools receive a combined $1.2 billion in state appropriations.

Moreover, Ivy Tech is serving the most academically challenged and financially needy students. Just 5 percent of its students came from high school honors programs; that compares to 83 percent of students at Indiana University and 85 percent at Purdue University. About 80,000 Ivy Tech students receive Pell Grants; at Indiana’s two four-year flagships, the comparative number is 7,000.

“The students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, the non-honors graduates, this is where they go to school,” Snyder said. “There is a demographic shift in the country, and it’s being addressed by community colleges across the country. We are dealing with the real world.”

Because of the budget shortfall, the college is now conducting a cost-benefit analysis of about 50 of its sites. In addition to 31 campuses across Indiana, Ivy Tech leases space at about 40 other sites, mostly in small communities, and those are the ones most vulnerable to possible closure or consolidation.

“There are no more easy answers,” Snyder said. “We are at the end of the runway. The tradeoff is that we will close facilities based on whether we are getting a return on our investment. The money we save would be redeployed into instruction and other areas.”

Lone Star has its own financial challenges. Last month, in a rare defeat for a college that enjoys strong support in and around its home in Houston, voters rejected a $497.7 million bond issue. The borrowing would have paid for improvements at the college’s seven campuses. Since Lone Star last went to the bond market in 2005, the college has added 30,000 students.

Carpenter is undaunted, attributing the defeat to fierce tea party opposition and an off-year election which produced a meager voter turnout. The college plans on asking voters to support another bond issue next year and will plan the vote for fall, when turnout is more robust.

Meanwhile, the college is forging ahead with its new Energy and Manufacturing Institute, an 80,000-square foot facility now under construction on LSCS’s University Park campus.

The institute was developed in response to the national, state and local talent gap in the oil and gas, alternative energy, and manufacturing and mechanized production industries. Customized training has been ongoing since the institute was formed in 2011. The new building, when it opens, will bring under one roof the college’s three workforce development arms: for-credit degree and certificate programs; non-credit certificate training; and customized training for business and industry, said Linda Head, the college’s associate vice chancellor of workforce education and corporate partnerships.

The college has long had continuing education programs for current and potential employees in fields such as the oil and gas, alternative energy and mechanized production industries. But complaints that companies could not find qualified workers persisted. The college formed a council of high-level corporate decision-makers to examine the problem, Head said.

“We found that the need was greater than we ever imagined,” she said. “We could have added a section here or there, but we were just not growing fast enough.”

The decision was made to build a new facility on LSCS’s newest campus. When it’s complete in 2014, it will allow LSCS to expand its current offerings to address needs from local and regional employers, Head said. College officials hope it will result in even more degrees and certificates.

The main challenge now, in the planning stages, is to persuade personnel who often work in silos to work together. College professors often don’t relish working with corporate trainers, and vice versa. Changing a culture is never easy.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “But it’s fun trying.”

IT's YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: What trends in degree and certificate production do you see on your campus?
Comments: ccweekblogwww.twitter.com/ccweek


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