Community College Conference Urges Focus on Student Success

AUSTIN, Tex. – The theme of improving student success in community colleges took center stage Monday at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) 32nd Annual International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence in Austin, Texas.

The second day of the conference convened with NISOD associate director Coral Noonan-Terry saying the accomplishments of conference honorees Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges, and Dr. Diane Troyer, senior program officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reflect values that honor the “humanity of teaching”. 

The first African-American woman to serve as president of SACS, Wheelan received the 2010 John E. Roueche NISOD International Leadership Award. A graduate of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin and a former community college president, Wheelan said becoming a college administrator was an honorable goal.

“We should be there for the student’s success and nothing else,” she said upon accepting the award.

Troyer, who also accepted the 2010 Suanne Davis Roueche Distinguished Lecturer Award, followed with a keynote address that outlined the latest initiative by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve student success at community colleges.   

“After 10 years of focusing on pre-K through high school education, we realized that it was not enough to impact the cycle of poverty,” Troyer said.

As a result, she said, the foundation turned its focus to postsecondary education by committing $100 million in grants to community colleges, which is part of the foundation’s Postsecondary Success Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to double the number of low-income U.S. students who complete a degree or credential by age 26.

“We’ve done a tremendous job of creating access to community college but we’ve learned that access does not translate into completion, particularly among low-income and first-generation college students,” Troyer said.

Forty percent of low-income students are the first in their family to pursue postsecondary education and of that number, 60 percent begin at a community college, she said. However, only 26 percent will finish, compared with the 54 percent of non-low-income students who do. When race is factored in, less than 17 percent of African-American or Latino students will finish.

Focusing on research, innovation and effective practices, the initiative is expected to produce data that will illuminate what barriers preclude successful degree completion by students. Troyer said that community colleges must commit themselves to seeing increased degree completion, using data to drive institutional change, and supporting faculty-led innovation.

“We need to redefine access from a doorway to college to a pathway to completion for a better life,” she said.

Building on the opening general session, a special session entitled “Doubling the Numbers: Acceleration and Scale” showcased programs implemented through the Developmental Education Initiative (DEI), which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program selected 15 colleges, already involved in the Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count program, a multi-year national initiative to boost graduation rates at community colleges, particularly among low-income students and students of color.

Dr. Thomas Baynum, president of Coastal Bend College in Texas, and Dr. Charles Cook, vice chancellor of instruction at Houston Community College, shared insights on the challenges and successes from the developmental education initiatives at their respective colleges.

Regarding measurable outcomes, the degree completion rate at Houston Community College System has increased between the fall of 2004 and spring 2009 from 69.8 to 74.8 percent, Cook noted.