At Community Colleges' Meeting, Officials Debate How to Deliver More Graduates

April 18, 2010

As hundreds of community-college leaders gather here this week for the American Association of Community Colleges' annual meeting, a lot of the discussion will center on how to fulfill President Obama's goal of producing five million more graduates from the two-year institutions over the next decade.

So it is no surprise that developing and putting into place strategies to help students succeed academically are themes of many of the sessions. Other panels will focus on how to prepare students for a global economy and challenges facing college leaders.

An ambitious proposition when the president first announced it last year, achieving the goal of more community-college graduates is even more in doubt now. In the student-loan legislation the president signed last month, community colleges received only a fraction of the money Mr. Obama had proposed to help the institutions meet his graduation benchmark.

Rather than the $12-billion over 10 years that Mr. Obama had sought to improve programs, courses, and facilities at community colleges, the final student-loan legislation had only $2-billion for job training.

The assistance in the recently signed Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HR 4872), however, is just a first step toward meeting the president's goal, Martha J. Kanter, U.S. under secretary of education, said here on Sunday afternoon.

Speaking to an audience of roughly 300 people, Ms. Kanter said college graduation rates had remained stagnant too long. The relatively low number of Americans who complete a college degree, compared with other countries, is "a national tragedy," Ms. Kanter said.

"We have to get people to the finish line," she said. "We have to get them to graduate." She called on community colleges to embrace evidence-based research and apply programs that work at their campuses.

Carol J. Spencer, president of San Juan College, in New Mexico, said that regardless of how much federal money is available, the bottom line is that community colleges need to find a way to deliver more graduates.

Ms. Spencer, who was a panelist at a Sunday session about how community colleges were preparing to meet the president's goal, said the president's goal is putting appropriate pressure on community colleges to do what they should have been doing all along.

Her college is especially focused on helping its American Indian students, who make up 30 percent of the student population at San Juan College.

Students there receive lots of one-on-one attention, she said, including mandatory advising sessions and intense tutoring. And faculty and staff members undergo cultural-awareness training.

"If we don't help them play catch-up, we can't get them to graduation," she said.

International Efforts

Internationalization efforts at community colleges were the focus of another session on Sunday. A participant on that panel, Natalie J. Harder, vice president for institutional advancement at Patrick Henry Community College, in Virginia, said community-college students who do not have global experience risk being less valuable to employers than students who do have such experience.

With community colleges educating close to one-half of all undergraduates in the United States, more focus on internationalization is important to ensure American college graduates are competitive in today's global labor pool, Ms. Harder said.

At all types of community colleges—rural, urban, and suburban ones—internationalization efforts are limited, according to a report by Ms. Harder. She said the lack of support from high-level administrators for those efforts is the No. 1 stumbling block that keeps community colleges from internationalizing their campuses, including making it part of the mission statement, recruiting international students, and hiring faculty of various nationalities.

Sometimes that lack of support stems from the idea that the cost to internationalize a campus will be too high. And other times, community-college officials just think it isn't necessary, Ms. Harder said.

She said community colleges that don't understand the importance are making a mistake because globalization has evened the playing field in terms of where students go to college—it's not just the United States anymore. And, she added, internationalizing a community college doesn't have to be expensive.

"It can mean requiring students to take a foreign-language class," she said. "It can mean offering internationalization-related extracurricular activities. It can mean providing information on study-abroad programs."

Student Learning

Community-college officials also held a session on Sunday about improving student learning.

Among the ideas college officials on the panel advocated are integrating social media into course work, requiring students to attend orientation and a life-skills course, and creating an early-alert system that would identify students before they fail.

Steve Piscitelli, who teaches history at Florida State College at Jacksonville, said he's found that, to increase retention, he must make sure to engage and connect with his students.

One way to do that, he said, is through social media. While not a fan at first, he has become a convert to it.

"Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay," Mr. Piscitelli said. "Why not use it to engage students?"

He has created a Facebook fan page for his study-skills class. He posts videos of himself talking about the course work and asks students to respond to questions.

At the College of Southern Nevada, Robert M. Sherfield, who teaches technical writing there, started an orientation program that welcomes parents, is offered in Spanish, and takes place over the weekend.

The almost three-hour-long session includes presentations from faculty members and a campus tour.

When the program started a year and a half ago, the sessions were not a big draw. About 20 to 30 people would show up, but as word got out attendance got better. Now the college sees about 300 people per session.

Mr. Sherfield said the idea for the unusual orientation is based on research that links strong orientation programs with high retention rates. Since the program is relatively new, it is too early to tell what kind of effect it will have on retention rates at the two-year college. .

"Previous data has shown that it works at other community colleges," Mr. Sherfield said. "We are hoping for the same result."