Eight Questions Report, Questions 5 and 6
Eight Important Questions for Eleven Community College Leaders:An Exploration of Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies
Questions 5 and 6
by the SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies
5. What challenges are community colleges facing in regard to enhancing student services, and what kind of solutions are needed?
Question 5 Brief: It’s clear that budget cuts come down hard on student services and many community colleges cannot get student services and academic affairs to work together due to a kind of silo effect. Solutions to such challenges exist but have not yet been fully implemented.
Roueche noted that in Texas, as well as in numerous other states across the country, community colleges are looking at extraordinarily large shortfalls of funding that will result in job loss for a high number of faculty and staff at community colleges. “So, sadly, we are going to have to do a whole lot more with less,” he said. “And the challenge is that the students who are coming to us now need help, especially on the student services side, perhaps more than any population in history.” Milliron mentioned an interesting facet of student services whereby some institutions are farming out student advisement services to technical paraprofessionals. He said that many of these advisers are “really good, but I think that if we are going to get completion rates up, we will have to get faculty much more deeply involved in the advising process and back into the lifecycle of student success. I think that is going to be an interesting conversation over the course of the next few years. It varies deeply by college [amount of faculty providing direct advisement services to students], but I think it is going to be one of those conversations about creating partnerships around structural advising and then academic advising to help that student on the road ahead.”
O’Banion: One of the big problems in community colleges is the silos that have been created between the academic affairs side of the house and the student affairs side of the house. It is a major issue. The completion agenda will not succeed without high quality programs in admissions, orientation, assessment, placement, advising, registration, and financial aid the territory for student services. But we can’t get the student affairs people and the academic affairs people to really look at the entire institution and see what each side of the house can contribute. Some colleges have done away with this problem by creating one office a vice president for the college or a vice president for learning, for example instead of having a separate vice president of student affairs and a separate vice president for academic affairs. Putting those two silos under one person is one way of trying to break down the differences between those two groups of people. They need to work collaboratively and bring the special skill sets that they each have to the table for the good of the students. But historically they have not done that very well.
Cameron: We’ll get budget cuts from our legislators in which they say that you can’t affect the classroom. We always hear that line; you can’t impact the classroom. Well, if you do not have appropriate student services support for guidance, counseling, and helping people with their career paths, then it doesn’t matter what goes on in the classroom the students will not be successful. I believe the importance of student success is vital. When a student applies to GTCC, they complete an application, and the first individual they come in contact with is through student services, where they are advised, where they receive financial aid, where they’re counseled. So, when legislators take a look at cutting student services, I have to say they are being short-sighted. They may not understand the holistic approach to the success of students at a community college. But I’ll also quickly say that some of that may be our own fault in that we have not educated the legislators to understand that. So we cannot put it all on them. Some of it is our fault as well.
Lassiter: One of the challenges we face is that we are seeing a somewhat different population of people who come to the college setting with a lot of baggage in terms of their preparation and in terms of various social issues they bring with them, including the possible baggage of loss of employment. So they are really coming to us asking for more help, and we are being challenged in terms of being able to provide that expanded support. We are taking the position, at least in Dallas, that we have to find ways to address those needs that students bring when they come to us.
We’ve had pretty good success over the years with the so-called case-management approach largely stemming from the TRIO program (federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds). We are trying to do more of that. We are also capturing the view that students should not have an option for attending orientations. I’m making some major changes in our new student orientation where it is required. In a couple of colleges, new student orientation also involves family members, and it is working out quite well. We believe that there is just so much that we can do in providing services, and if we can involve the families, that might be helpful to some regard.
So far, we’re not cutting money. Now specifically here, in an effort to address our budget challenge, our board has approved a voluntary retirement incentive. And the idea is that we are going to have a number of people meet the criteria for retirement. It’s going to open up some opportunities for us to do some significant transformative reorganization. Providing expanded student services will be one of our high priorities when we get involved in this.
6. Do you see student assessment, course evaluations, and data analysis practices becoming increasingly more important and vitalfor community colleges to develop more effective institutional strategies, governance practices, and decision-making processes?
Question 6 Brief: This is definitely the wave of the future, and it does come with its fair share of challenges. Gould noted that “for too long institutions responsible for providing outstanding research to the world have relied much too heavily on opinions to guide decision-making. Robust analytical tools exist today that can provide data on how well current academic and intervention strategies are working, what improvements might be needed, and help provide information that will allow leaders to decide on directions for the future.”
Thor said that “we are all becoming more assessment-oriented, more metrics-oriented, and hopefully more effective with analytics, particularly predictive analytics.”
“How do you really measure what’s going on?” asked Lambert. “Some students come to us for one or two quarters and then they are off to the university. Isn’t that success? So, how do we build a more robust system where we measure what’s really going on? You’ve got to have data, and it is making sure you have the right data. It’s making sure you have the right assessments that produce the kind of data you need.”
Referring to the demands of the completion agenda, de los Santos added that there will continue to be pressure to increase “the sophisticated use of data, of information, of analysis, and incorporating more sophisticated uses of analytical technologies. You need to ensure that you are not just swimming through an ocean of information. And how do you use the information so that you can make informed decisions in the classroom, in student services, in human resources? I think it is going to be a major pressure point because of what’s being demanded of the completion agenda.”
O’Banion: The first major evaluation of Achieving the Dream looked at 26 ‘Round 1’ colleges that had been working at this for five years, and they discovered that of the four major outcomes, one showed that about 20 percent of the colleges did not have the capacity to really do institutional research effectively (see “Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges”). I think that is true. A fairly large group of community colleges do not have the capacity because they never funded it in the first place.
Secondly, community colleges typically use their institutional research capacity for compliance reporting, rather than for research that can help them improve their programs. They have to compile state and federal data reports for compliance reporting. So, they spend all their energy on compliance reporting rather than on gathering and analyzing data to improve learning. That is a key problem that we are seeing across the country. You cannot make the college completion agenda work unless you have a good and fully functional institutional research system, as well as good and fully functional student services. As this completion agenda moves forward, those two areas are so under-funded that in many cases they have become devastated.
Roueche: The bad news is when we try to get outcome data from an individual course, it’s almost impossible. If you wrote the academic dean of a college and asked what the outcomes are for a freshman English grammar and composition course in other words, what will students be able to do, how are they assessed, etc. you’d find that we’re still painfully behind in the identity and ascertainment of specific measurable or observable learning outcomes from individual courses. We’ve done very well with this in the work-related areas, such as in the allied health areas, where they’ve identified and they can quantify, either by measurement or observation, their outcomes. They’ve done it very, very well. That’s more and more the case in business and it’s more and more the case in the technologies, but when you get into the general ed core, the developmental ed core, we are way behind with anybody talking about specific outcomes.
Milliron: There’s still a lot to learn. A lot of issues are around the technology, the infrastructure, and staffing to be able to do this well. It’s also about trying to get cultures of inquiry within the colleges so they can actually use this data to be able to tune the learning experience. I think one of the bigger issues is also about people being willing to be tough minded about the data. Yes, it’s messy. Community colleges have such a broad mission and serve such a diverse clientele of people that really getting concrete with the data is difficult.
I think we have to get our arms around some key data points. Kay McClenney [Director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement] talks about it all the time. Are we really happy with these success rates that we have? Can we innovate against these? I think we probably agree that we can. We can find that there’s room for improvement in everybody and every institution. So just try to figure out what your baseline is and figure out how you can use that as a tool to discern whether or not what you’re doing and innovating against is actually working. I do think, however, that it’s probably going to be a combination of quantitative and qualitative data. I’m also a big fan of student focus groups. I’m a big fan of asking students what they think in this process. I think we’ve got to make sure we add that to the mix.