Community Colleges

Dreaming Big

An ambitious national project inspires community colleges to find innovative solutions to old problems

Lissa Gotwals for The Chronicle

William E. Trueheart (left), chief executive of a national program that uses student-achievement data to raise graduation and transfer rates at two-year colleges, tours Danville Community College with its president, B. Carlyle Ramsey.
April 18, 2010

On a recent afternoon, the president of Danville Community College is describing the changes there since it joined the national Achieving the Dream program.

A 2008 incident led to a campuswide lockdown—and later, to much-improved security measures. A student had brought a gun to the campus, reportedly after an argument, and was arrested. Later Danville, expanding on its new data-driven approach to setting policy, surveyed faculty and staff members about ways to improve campus safety. After studying the responses, campus officials installed call boxes in the parking lots, placed loudspeakers around the campus to broadcast word of future emergencies, and improved lighting.


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"We wouldn't have done that before Achieving the Dream," the president, B. Carlyle Ramsey, tells his lunch guests. Among them is William E. Trueheart, new chief executive officer of the ambitious, six-year-old national program, which uses student-achievement data to find innovative ways to raise graduation and transfer rates.

The collection and analysis of data drive much of what happens—or doesn't happen—on this 4,000-student campus in Virginia's tobacco belt, near the North Carolina border.

Achieving the Dream was started with hefty financial backing from the Lumina Foundation for Education and other philanthropies, and it is showing significant promise at community colleges across the country. College officials point to improved student grades, higher retention rates, narrower achievement gaps, and reduced attrition rates. And the number of students required to take remedial courses—a big problem for community colleges—is on the decline at many of the colleges.

But challenges still exist. Chief among them is finding the money to continue the projects when the initial support runs out. This is especially tough at a time when many colleges are facing budget constraints because of the recession. A related issue is how to scale up successful programs—expand them to include more students. Those are some of the issues facing Mr. Trueheart early in his tenure. A former college president and philanthropic executive, he most recently served as president and chief executive of the Pittsburgh Foundation, a community group that manages 1,300 individual funds in support of issues like education, civic engagement, affordable housing, creative arts, and cultural and racial diversity.

His appointment to Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, as the program is called in full, is a first step in its effort to become a stand-alone nonprofit group by weaning itself from foundation support. It is also part of a plan to expand and include more community colleges in the project, which already includes more than 100 community colleges in 22 states, serving about a million students, program officials say. By 2012-13, it hopes to include at least 160 more colleges, partly by adding community colleges in states where it already has a presence.

To date more than $100-million has been invested in Achieving the Dream, with Lumina contributing about 60 percent. Other backers included the Kresge Foundation, the Houston Endowment, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Not surprisingly, fund raising is expected to take up a good portion of Mr. Trueheart's time. He is working out of the Chapel Hill, N.C., offices of MDC Inc., a nonprofit social-action group that manages the project.

On the car ride from Chapel Hill to Danville, Mr. Trueheart jokes to a visitor that he has been in a boot camp of sorts to learn as much as possible about Achieving the Dream. The effort will take him to numerous community colleges, including Danville.

Danville Community College, whose origins long predate its inclusion in the Virginia Community College system, serves students from this small city and from rural Pittsylvania County and neighboring Halifax County. Just beyond the campus are farmhouses, horses, and old, gray tobacco barns. The library displays memorabilia that include a uniform worn by cadets back when the Danville Military Institute was here. The campus housed German prisoners of war during World War II.

"It's unusual for a community college to have this sort of deep tradition," says Mr. Ramsey, the president.

Although he has never worked at a community college, Mr. Trueheart had been in touch with that sector in his previous jobs. As president of Bryant University, in Rhode Island, he established articulation agreements with area community colleges. At the Pittsburgh Foundation, he was involved with work-force development, a hallmark of community colleges. "I've had a passion there," he says.

Achieving the Dream aims to change institutional cultures. But that doesn't happen overnight, says Carol A. Lincoln, an MDC employee who is national director of the program. Steady leadership and faculty and staff support are needed for new ideas to work on any campus, she says. College officials spend a lot of time and energy on managing enrollment, since the amount of state support they receive is determined by those numbers.

Achieving the Dream, however, encourages colleges to think beyond that first day of class and consider whether those students go on to pass their courses. More important, are they transferring to four-year institutions, or at least earning a certificate or associate degree?

Being a part of the project has taught participating colleges common lessons, even as they take their own paths toward meeting their specific needs. In dealing with late registration, for example, many community college allow it as much as two weeks after classes begin, to give busy students with family and work obligations extra time. As it turns out, however, students who begin classes late tend to do poorly, because they miss so much work.

Ms. Lincoln says colleges have been encouraged to make late-registration policies less generous.

"It was scary for schools because they thought they would lose enrollment," she says, "but in reality most schools didn't find a significant dip."

To accomplish the long-term goals of Achieving the Dream, community colleges must figure out how to financially sustain their projects on their own. For those that joined the program in the early years, in 2004 and 2005, the financing will soon come to an end. Some of them have been able to absorb projects into their operating budgets.

Colleges that joined the effort later were required to bring their own money to the table. Still others were awarded grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its Developmental Education Initiative. That money will be used to bolster existing remedial programs.

Danville determined that it could no longer continue to pay for math tutors—part of a strategy to move students out of remedial math—at the rate of $25 an hour. It offers remedial-math courses in several formats, including the traditional, semester-long course as well as modules that allow for fast-tracking or course repetition. In the past, students who had to repeat a module were required to work with a tutor. Rather than continue with that expense, the college began offering extra help online.

"It was a major change," says Janet T. Laughlin, dean of the college's Division of Student Success and Academic Advancement. "The great thing about Achieving the Dream is that encourages us to take risks. It's OK to try something new."

In fact, the college surpassed its goal of increasing to 20 percent the proportion of minority and low-income students who advance from remedial to college-level math. Nearly one-third of low-income students now do so, up from 8 percent before Danville joined Achieving the Dream. And 28 percent of minority students pass out of such classes, up from just 2 percent.

The college continues to promote its remedial-math modules, which offer students a quicker way to move through the material. Campus officials, noticing that some students kept repeating the traditional 16-week course, wanted more of them to take advantage of the shorter format. Faculty members who teach the modules now share their expertise with other professors.

As for extending successful programs to more students, Danville is doing its part. Under Achieving the Dream, it began offering a course that helps students make the transition to college life. At first there were six sections of the course; today there are 26.

Mr. Ramsey, Danville's president, says he is committed to Achieving the Dream for the long haul. "We believe this whole challenge of enabling students to achieve success not only helps our students, but makes us a better institution," he says.

"We may have to consolidate a few things here and there, but we are not going to back off."