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How a Community College Helps Students Graduate Without Debt

Making a difference for students starts from the top, and extends beyond the walls of the institution.
Making a difference for students starts from the top, and extends beyond the walls of the institution.

Accessibility to quality education can change lives and communities, but finding a way to grant that access is no small task.

Having the right tools, people, and programming in place can make all the difference for both faculty and students when it comes to education and training. As well as partnerships with the right businesses and organizations that extend beyond higher ed’s reach.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): You’re being recognized by a range of organizations for the work you and your team are doing to close equity gaps. What does it take to make equity a central part of the strategy of a college?

Jim Murdaugh (JM): It starts with leadership. It takes people who are not only competent but also committed and it takes continuity over time. As we work together to refine our thinking and strategies based upon data, ours is a team that’s absolutely committed to embracing facts without flinching. So we’ve looked at areas that need improvement and have never hesitated to address those areas head on. But it really is, as simple as this sounds, all about leadership. It’s about having the right people who care and who come to work every day with an understanding of the nature of the students we serve, their challenges and their opportunities, and then capitalizing on what we know about them.

I’ve had a vision for our college over the past 12 years that I’ve been president to be recognized as a college of choice. And how I operationalize that is in three areas. First, to make TCC the college of choice for the students who come here. Second, to make us the employer of choice for faculty and staff. And third, to make us the partner of choice in our community.

This past year, I convened a President’s Commission on Race and Equity comprised of men and women at all levels from across the campus. We held a series of meetings that focused on those three general areas.

This was an effort on our part to really address whether we are doing the right things in these three areas. And we came out with actionable recommendations. One of the examples that emerged from our groups was that as we talk about being the employer of choice, it was suggested that I, as president, should talk to all hiring managers and make it absolutely clear what my expectations are as it relates to having faculty and staff who are reflective of the students that we serve. And I did that.

Of course back then, we were doing everything by Zoom because we were in the middle of the pandemic, but that actually afforded me a wonderful opportunity because I could talk to a couple of hundred hiring managers at one time and make my expectations absolutely clear.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that a college can face when actively working to expand access success for students that are historically, or at least traditionally considered high risk?

JM: Let me give you a couple of examples of the students that we consider high risk, and then we’ll delve into it more. We have recently seen our data indicating that we are making a huge difference in the success rates of our Hispanic students who come here. We’re about 20% Hispanic at TCC.

Angela Long (AL): Yes, as a matter of fact, this last spring semester our Hispanic student success rates increased by 19%, up from 15% previously.

JM: One of the things that I like to share, because I think it’s not all that common, is our commitment to second chances. We have an amazing effort on the workforce side of our college, dealing with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. We’re in nine Florida prisons where we are doing some amazing work to include teaching inmates commercial truck driving, for example. The Florida Department of Corrections highlighted us recently at their annual statewide conference. They called us out and had our vice president of workforce innovation share what we’re doing.

We actually had a graduation ceremony involving seven inmates who are currently incarcerated in the department of corrections for felony convictions. The Secretary of the Department of Corrections was there. We had those seven inmates wearing their prison attire, but over their prison attire, they wore graduation robes. We had a graduation ceremony. The seven of them held up their commercial truck driving licenses that they earned while still incarcerated and in the back of the room, we had three employers who offered them jobs right there so that when they get out of prison, they will have jobs.

Now, I don’t know if you follow commercial truck driving as a career option, but Walmart is now paying about a hundred thousand dollars a year for commercial truck drivers. And in that area, nobody cares if you’re a convicted felon. So that’s maybe a little too in the weeds for you, but the point is that we identify people that a lot of colleges don’t pay any attention to and we focus on making a difference in those lives as well.

Evo: If you’re making so much financial aid available that students are able to graduate largely without debt, how do you afford it?

JM: It starts with keeping tuition and fees low. We offer one of the lowest tuitions of all community and state colleges in Florida. And, we are half the cost of a Florida public university. In addition, we provide a wide range of financial assistance to students. We ensure students take advantage of the maximum available to them from federal and state sources and we have a foundation that has an amazing track record of raising funds from private individual and corporate donors. About three-fourths of our graduates leave us without any debt!

Evo: How do these units start to play a role in executing on the broader vision that you and the team have for equity and outcomes based education?

JM: Our executive team sits at the table every week and talks about all issues college-wide to ensure coordination and thorough treatment of these issues. For example, let’s pick cybersecurity. We do both credit and non-credit cybersecurity work. The real challenge of the team then is to talk about building stackable credentials across the organizational entities doing the work and ensuring IT, and marketing, and institutional effectiveness and our foundation are all supporting our efforts in a seamless manner.

In our state, there’s been an appetite among colleges to add baccalaureates to their portfolio. And frankly, a lot of that is because they think that it’s going to make money. I’ve taken the opposite approach. We offer one baccalaureate right now, and that’s nursing. And we did that at the request of our local hospitals. Instead of chasing baccalaureates we’ve gone the other direction.

We are placing great emphasis on creating badges and micro-credentials. We’re headed the other direction because what I hear from business leaders particularly in the information technology world is they’ll say, “Jim, we don’t need someone with an associate’s degree. We don’t even need somebody that has a certain course. We need somebody that understands Python and how to program.”

Even beyond that, you can take it down to even further levels of micro. All of this takes place in a conversation that says, let’s make sure that whatever we do is not a dead end. We’re not going to offer you Python unless we have already built a path to progress if you wish to later. That’s how we make sure that what we do is relevant.

Evo: As you look to the next five to 10 years, what are some of the plans that you and the team have in place to continue to build on this base of equity and inclusion for all the folks within your service area?

JM: This is not sexy at all, but what we really do is roll our sleeves up and have conversations at a level that we’ve never had before. I’ll admit to you this past year, we took it to a level of analysis that we had not before. Like every other college, what we have had are tremendous conversations with leadership at all levels, not just the executive team, but also with rank and file faculty and staff about the importance of dealing with this gap in equity. We’ve shown them the data. They all understand it. They get it. But the question ultimately comes down to, “What can I do as an admissions navigator? I’m with you, tell me what I can do.”

We broke down our processes to such a level that we are able now to tell everyone in the organization what processes they individually can impact. For example, let’s pick the admissions navigator. At our college, the admissions navigator is responsible for helping applicants become students. Their job is to take someone who’s expressed an interest in coming to TCC and convert them into a student. The metric that we use of course, is the conversion rate or yield rate of applicants to students. We decided we’re going to break this down. And we looked at applicants and began to ask, is there an equity gap? Are we seeing white applicants converted to students at a different rate than Black applicants?

And the answer was yes.

Now our admissions navigator has something to chew on. They can ask, “Why is this happening? And what, if anything, can I do as an admissions navigator to change that first step into the college?” We’ve done this throughout the college. Everyone at the college who touches any part of the student experience has the opportunity to understand this is the process that they own, that they can make a difference in. We had never done this before at this level of analysis. And now we have strategies in place to make changes.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about the work that you’ve done to build an oriented institution and where you plan to go next?

AL: I can say without question that at the heart of our college’s success are the people that build this culture of care and commitment to each other and our students every day. They are willing to ask the tough questions that’s led to lasting change. This culture would not be what it is without the committed leadership of our president and other executive leaders who have really focused on building key relationships and encouraging those on the front lines to take ownership of the work happening now.

To give you an example, in the fall of 2019, almost 170 leaders from across the college including folks from Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Workforce, Institutional Effectiveness and the Office of the President gathered to take part in a two-day design-thinking session. They were asked the following question: “if you could redesign the student experience through an innovative model that increases student success and closes equity gaps, what would it look like?”

Everyone who participated was shown the research on the College’s equity profile including a 30% equity gap among our Black and white students in select gateway courses. One of the quotes that I love was shared by our provost… We are perfectly designed for the outcomes that we see. In other words, if you do nothing to change anything, you’re probably not going to see an increase in success, correct? We talked about the difference between moving the needle and closing gaps. Institutions can “move the needle” but this does not necessarily mean that you are closing your gaps. The conversation was, how do you close these gaps? How do we overcome these barriers? And if you could develop a model that increases success, what would it look like?

As part of the design-thinking format, participants developed prototypes outlining an ideal experience for students from onboarding to graduation to transfer to employment. Ideas were compiled and organized. The end result was the development of the College’s CARE model – one cohesive prototype that identified student needs according to four categories: Connections, Academics, Resources, and Engagement.

The CARE model really stems from our College’s Strategic Pillars focused on building access, student success, workforce, partnerships and efficiency in resources. The guiding principles and priorities of the Culture of C.A.R.E affirmed previous research conducted by our vice president for student affairs, as well as folks in academic affairs, and became the foundation of everything we do here at the college. C.A.R.E represents how we at the college provide Connections to students– that is early, intentional and embedded experiences along the pathway to help students feel that they belong and have a personalized connection to the College and their career interests; Academics – How we offer clear academic maps, ensuring learning is occurring, and infusing employability skills throughout the curriculum; Resources – Ways we embed holistic supports to our students by helping to remove academic and life barriers that impede student success; and finally, Engagement – Building opportunities for students to get involved, connect with others and explore pathways that open doors to economic and social mobility.

Such a model was put to the test in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic forced a statewide lockdown. Almost instantly, TCC shifted its services virtually and included a new form of teaching and learning entitled LIVE (Learning Interactively in a Virtual Environment) courses. Faculty were trained on how to embed high-impact teaching and learning practices into the virtual classroom and our student affairs team focused on how to provide personalized and just-in-time support targeting students’ physical, social/emotional, and engagement needs.

That next fall, due to the remarkable efforts of this work, our student success rates rose by nearly 9% college-wide among our FTIC students and 3% among all students across ALL demographics including Black and Hispanic. Black and Hispanic student success rates rose by 5% among all FTIC cohorts and 4% among all college cohorts. The data is remarkable given the impact the pandemic has had in education and efforts to sustain our enrollment.

Now, exactly two years later, this culture of CARE framework has led to the college’s redesign in our honors programs, TCC online, math pathways and teaching and learning framework. We saw barriers. But this mindset of how do you rethink, how do you redesign really has permeated.

I think for what changed Tallahassee Community College is the people here that work here every day, they were acknowledged. They were looked at. We want to hear what you have to say, and it perfectly aligned with the efforts across the board. And guess what? People have ownership. The mission is in them. That is the key to knowing how to build this and personalize this for our students so they know we care.

At the end of the day, we want our students to realize ‘You’re a name, not a number.” I can go to any university and be in a class of 500. I’m not going to be known by name, but here at TCC, we pride ourselves in the fact that our students can tell you, I’m known by name. And I think that is part of the equity conversation. It’s part of the future of work conversation. Everything that Dr. Murdaugh has talked about, it starts with a good team and it starts with good leadership. I think he has learned to hire well and know the people that he works with that has really changed this paradigm.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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