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Open Access Over Closed Doors: Defining Institutional Success at Two-Year Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Open Access Over Closed Doors: Defining Institutional Success at Two-Year Colleges
By focusing on student success at every level of the institution, it becomes more feasible to hold institutions accountable to what their students are able to accomplish after graduation.

Higher education’s most popular rankings systems have highlighted the factors and features that have traditionally designated an elite or prestigious institution, favoring closed doors over open access. But what does that mean for institutions that have open access as a core part of the mission? In this interview, Valerie Jones shares her thoughts on the importance of a student success focus for today’s institutions and reflects on how to measure institutional performance for open-access colleges.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher education institutions to focus on student success?

Valerie Jones (VJ): The fact that we have to ask that question is indicative of the problem and the situation that we’re in, because shouldn’t that be what it’s all about? Shouldn’t the critical measure we’re held to be our students reaching the goals they set out to achieve?

That we have to have programs and initiatives talking about re-centering on student success or student learning is really telling of the state of education today. If we have to be made conscious of that, that means we’ve not been focusing on student learning and student success.

Then the question becomes, “Well what are we focusing on?” and the answer, simply, is that we’re focused on a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s funding and sometimes it’s head count. Sometimes it’s figuring out how to create the perception that the more people we can turn away and “weed out”—which is a very common term in higher education—the better we’re doing.

When an institution truly embraces student success as their driving force, it inherently changes the dynamic and operation of the entire institution. That’s what we’ve seen at Odessa College. We started the movement in one place, embracing student success as the goal, which triggered a spread of this mentality institution-wide. There’s no part of the college that can remain untouched if student success truly is our goal.

One of the things that is really important for open enrollment institutions like Odessa College is recognizing that it’s not capability and potential nor intellect or ability that has kept so many of our students from being successful in their higher education endeavors. Unfortunately, that’s the assumption that gets made across the postsecondary system. It’s life experiences. It’s being first-generation and not knowing the jargon. It’s past experiences with education that may not have created a positive association so there’s a fear that comes just from setting foot on the college campus. It’s the intentional and the unintentional voices inside of a classroom that reinforce who belongs and who doesn’t. If students have to overcome all those things just to get in the door then they’re already so beat down. It’s completely understandable that they would walk away and say, “This isn’t for me.”

We have a tendency to tell students they don’t belong, that they’re not ready, that they’re not college material. The people saying those things think it’s for the students’ best interest, that they’re trying to protect students’ GPAs and trying to not overwhelm them. The impact is catastrophic, though, because what the student hears is, “I can’t be successful in college. Not just this class, not just this level—I’m not a college student and I’m not cut out for this.”

Instead, our focus needs to be on helping students succeed in reaching their goals or in realizing there are goals that they never even imagined are possible to develop. That’s our job and that’s what we should be held accountable to. It inherently changes the entire dynamic because they can’t be bodies in the seats and they can’t be weeded out.

The Drop Rate Improvement Program is a cornerstone for us in recognizing that higher education’s traditionally embraced practices can have really horrible student success implications. Our president often shares an example of a kid who decides they want to play softball. When they start they’re usually horrible—they miss the ball, they can’t get to base and they strike out almost every time they go up. Higher education would traditionally tell them, “You’re not ready for this. Why don’t you quit the team, go home and come back when you’re ready.” But that’s not what we tell them. We tell them to persevere and to keep trying. We understand they might not be the Most Valuable Player in their first or second year. We also know that they’re never going to learn how to succeed sitting at home—they’re not going to get better if they don’t try.

Evo: What is Design for Completion (D4C) and how does it support that focus on student perseverance and success?

VJ: The D4C effort has evolved over the last few years to include a number of programs and components that all center around the questions, “How do we all get on the same page to support students in reaching their goals?” and “How do we design the student experience so that they are in the best position to complete?”

A piece of that is the Drop Rate Improvement Program, which is a very intentional and expansive program focused on the impact that individual faculty members have on students continuing on their path to success. Through an internal research process, which informed the program, we identified four recurrent behaviors that, if embraced by faculty, would maximize student success. Training faculty on how to implement these behaviors in their classrooms has led to improved success rates in as little as one semester’s time. It’s not so complex or so difficult that it takes years for faculty to figure out. We’re not telling faculty how to present the course material. We’re guiding how to engage students and how to communicate with students, how to convince students that they matter and that we’re here to help them succeed.

The Drop Rate Improvement Program is a portion of another critical piece: success coaching. Success coaches are similar to advisors but they’re also expected to help students look at the big picture and help students through difficult times, help them get the resources they need to be successful and become better students. Our success coaches teach success courses that every student is required to take, which talk very explicitly about study behaviors, test taking behaviors, note taking behaviors, instructor engagement and other critical behaviors that set students up for success in and out of higher education. In the community college demographic, the sooner that we can help students determine their degree path—and its connection to their career path—the sooner they’re able to see the value in every class experience. Success coaches are critical in that.

Another part of the D4C recognizes that a completion barrier may be built into the actual structure of the courses themselves. We recognized that there are recurrent challenges in traditional 16-week offerings and decided that the eight-week course structure could have tremendous potential for accessibility and completion. This way, students have fewer simultaneous courses to keep up with and are able to have a shorter window of time to complete. The eight-week course structure is definitely appealing to new students—we saw an enrollment jump when we made that transition, which we didn’t expect to happen. This change has made college accessible for students who were not able to access it in the first place and helps students to be more successful because instead of having to take four classes in a semester to be full-time, they only had two at a time. We found that the ability for students to persist through life happenings has also been more manageable for students with this structure.

Evo: How are these efforts to support student success and completion represented by existing college ranking systems (like the one produced by US News)?

VJ: There certainly is a place for a traditional model, however, as we recognize that the changing economy and the changing global reality and America’s role in that global economy develops, the message has been very clear: We need more students earning credentials and demonstrating the skills, the thinking and proficiency that comes with a college degree.

If we only have that traditional model, backed by prestige rankings, we’re never going to get to where the economy needs us to be. In order for this country to play its critical role in a global sphere, we have to have more students moving through the college system and entering the workforce with the thinking, skills and awareness that comes from the postsecondary experience. In order to do that we can’t exist and rate ourselves on a scale that emphasizes restriction and weeding out.

Instead, we need to shift our focus to the outcomes of the higher education experience for our completers. What are graduates taking from their postsecondary experience into the world? If students are leaving an institution and they’re not able to thrive or contribute to the economy, then have we done the right thing for them? Have we done the right thing for the country? I think no, we haven’t. It’s not about the institution. It’s about the graduates that we put out into the world. It’s about the decisions they make, the contribution they make and the impact they make. If we only look at how many rocket scientists we produce, then we’re ignoring the reality that the world can’t live with only rocket scientists. We need a much more diverse labor force to truly excel and contribute to the global sphere. We need everybody to be able to push that limit and not be capped because they haven’t had access to education.

There’s a place for the traditional model but it can’t be the only model and it can’t be the best and only option. We can’t keep dismissing institutions that focus on student success. It’s at least equally—if not more—important to hold institutions of higher education accountable for the skills and contributions of students that are leaving their halls.

It has not been fashionable for a while to hold higher education accountable but we have to be held accountable for how we are contributing to the bigger picture of our economy and of our country. The students that come through our doors and complete our programs are the evidence of what we created so I think we need to take a serious look at that evidence.

Evo: How should institutional commitment to student success be represented in rankings, especially when it comes to highlighting the priorities of today’s students?

VJ: The Aspen Institute has started putting together the data we need to answer that question. There are four very concrete pieces that get looked at: degree completion, labor market success, learning outcomes and equity in access.

Having that accountability does help. When there’s an actual measurement for what excellence is, it changes the game. You can’t just say, “I feel like we’re doing great.” You have distinct measurements to which you need to hold yourself accountable. I think there’s value to accountability, but it does require asking different questions that force us to bring some of our biases and prejudices to the surface as far as what is considered success and how do we look at the different demographics for students.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of institutional focus on student success for today’s students?

VJ: It is absolutely incumbent on the leadership, the faculty and the employees of higher education institutions—whether they’re the Ivy Leagues universities or open enrollment colleges—to rethink our role and our obligation to our communities and to our country. That starts at the individual student—we can’t stop the movement toward student success because inertia will set in. Inertia is very powerful and higher education institutions have been around for a long time. It is incumbent on us to stop that process and be willing to say, in every single aspect of our operation, “We’ve always done it this way, but is it still the best way?”

We have to ask those questions about every student and about every aspect of the student experience. We need to consider our processes when it comes to entrance, registration, financial support, funding models, grading and the use of technology. If we’re truly focused on student success then we’re going to figure out how to improve what we do. It is a lot of work for every member of an institution but it is such important work and such good work and, frankly, our students deserve it.

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