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Accelerated Community College Program Puts Achievement in Reach for Disadvantaged Students

Ivy Tech President Thomas Snyder says the college aims to make education affordable for those who may not have the means to attend college.

Jesus Nino is one of 42 low-income and/or first-generation college students enrolled in the inaugural class of Ivy Tech’s accelerated degree  program.

But he scored high enough on his course placement exam to bypass summer remedial courses and gain acceptance into a new program that puts him on a fast track to an associate degree.

Nino, along with 42 other low-income and/or first-generation college students, is a part of the inaugural class to enroll in Ivy Tech Community College’s accelerated associate degree program. Each student will receive free tuition, textbooks, a laptop and a $100 weekly stipend to help cover transportation and food costs.

Ivy Tech may be the first community college in the nation to launch an ambitious plan for students to receive an associate degree in one year. Indiana’s only statewide community college will begin the program Aug. 23 at its campuses in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.

To get through the curriculum in one year, students must treat their studies like a full-time job. In fact, they are on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week and are advised to avoid the distraction of part-time employment. Nino worked three part-time jobs in high school to support himself and his family.

“(Ivy Tech officials) told us we can’t work so we can concentrate on our studies. If that’s something I have to do to get a degree, then I’ll do it,” says Nino, 19, who will be with 12 other students studying health care support at the Fort Wayne campus. “If it wasn’t for all the help Ivy Tech is providing for me, I don’t know if I would have been going to college.”

The three-year pilot program is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education in Indianapolis and a $270,000 grant from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, an agency that coordinates, plans and approves various programs and policies for public and private colleges.

The program is part of an effort to improve community college completion rates. According to the Lumina Foundation, just 46 percent of community college students receive a certificate or two-year associate degree in six years. At Ivy Tech, among the students who enrolled in 2003, 18.2 percent transferred before earning an associate degree; 15.4 percent graduated by 2009; 3.2 percent earned their degree and transferred to a four-year institution and another 6 percent were still enrolled.

The remaining 57 percent is unaccounted for because those students may have taken one or two courses to get a job, taken one class required of another college, or left.

Many community college students, including working adults, don’t have enough time to devote to their studies, contributing to the low completion rates at these open-access institutions, says Lumina President and Chief Executive Jamie P. Merisotis, who is excited about this new initiative to help students stay focused on school and get to the finish line in a shorter amount of time.

 “The educational experience, to do this like a job, is new,” Merisotis says. “If successful, we hope it could take hold at Ivy Tech and other institutions so they can maintain on their own.”


Minorities as a Priority

Initially opened in 1963 as Indiana Vocational Technical College, Ivy Tech Community College boasts the largest student body in the state with more than 150,000 students on 23 campuses. Its minority student population, now at 13 percent, has grown steadily, up to 19,636 students in fall 2009 compared with 11,882 four years earlier. African-Americans make up the largest group, accounting for 8.2 percent of enrollment, followed by Hispanics at nearly 2 percent.

Officials say diversity is an integral part of the school and the accelerated program.

For instance, nearly half of the 30 accelerated program students at the Indianapolis campus majoring in general studies and computer-information technology are Black, Latino and Native American.

“We have to make education affordable and great for those who may not have the means to attend college. African-American and Hispanic enrollment, mainly men, is important for us,” says Ivy Tech President Thomas Snyder. “Our role is about changing lives and making Indiana great.”

Students were selected into the accelerated program, open only to applicants who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in high school, based on test scores, grades, attendance and discipline records. The holistic evaluation process allows students, like Nino, with less-than-stellar high school GPAs to qualify with strong test scores, glowing recommendations from high school counselors and a convincing interview with Ivy Tech officials.

Students who scored low on the college readiness test needed to take math, reading or English classes this summer at Ivy Tech. Students must sign an agreement with their parents or guardians to ensure they are on campus the entire day.

An interdisciplinary teaching team of four faculty will instruct students in groups of at least 12 during five eight-week terms and classes taught in three-hour blocks. Fridays are “flexible,” allowing students to access tutoring or work on a group project.

Program Director Paula Birt says the curriculum hasn’t changed, but the program allows faculty to teach one topic in a variety of ways. The instructional team works together “to create a cohesive instructional plan (that) will assist students in making connections across disciplines quicker, thus reaching competencies at a faster pace,” Birt says.

Students, for example, can take history, English composition, public speaking and intro to microcomputers — all grouped in one term. An assignment requiring the student to research, write, speak and electronically present their findings about a history topic would be assessed by all four faculty. “The writing sample would be graded by the history faculty for content/ideas and by the English faculty for research and composition mastery.  The communications and computer faculty would assess their ability to communicate the history content using strong oral and electronic/visual means,” Birt says.    

“Because the students will be in class for long periods of time each time, it will be extremely important for instructors to use a variety of instructional strategies (that) are highly engaging for the students,” she says. 

Ivy Tech’s isn’t the first program devised to get students out the door quicker. The City University of New York began an Accelerated Study in Associate Program in 2007 to improve the three-year graduation rate at its six community colleges. According to an executive summary, 30 percent of the students who enrolled when the program started graduated in two years. By comparison, just 11 percent of students in the cohort that started in fall 2006 earned an associate degree or credential in two years. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to commit up to $27 million toward the program; an additional $4 million is coming from grants.

Birt says Ivy Tech accelerated degree program graduates will be employment-ready. For those wanting to transfer to a four-year school, she said an articulation agreement, or partnership with a four-year institution to ensure credits are transferrable, has been established with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

A researcher at Indiana University Bloomington questions whether accelerated programs are sustainable because of costs.

Dr. George D. Kuh, director of Indiana’s Center for Postsecondary Research, also says he’s not convinced students who learn a curriculum in a compressed period of time will gain critical-thinking and analytical skills.

“If we are not sure we can do this (graduate students) in two or three years with an associate degree, how can we be sure we can do this in a one-year period of time?” Kuh says. “Time will tell.”

Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector in Washington, agrees with Kuh’s assessment. Carey says there’s “some confusion” over the benefits of an accelerated degree, including the three-year bachelor’s degree programs. For instance, he says, are schools saving money by educating students in a shorter time frame? Can schools prove students have learned or come away with the same skills as they would have had they gone the normal route?

“There’s an added obligation on the university’s part to communicate to the job market and to students of what students are learning in an accelerated program,” Carey says. “The students need to definitely know what they are getting into.”

Nino says students have been warned about the intensive year of study.

“We are going to be the first group,” he says. “We were told this is not going to be easy. I think I can handle it. I like a challenge.”

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