January 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 1

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Achieving the Dream:
Helping Community Colleges
Focus on Student Success

by Jamie Panzarella, ASA Publications Department

Community colleges today face the challenge and pleasure of accounting for almost half of all undergraduate students in the United States. Within this large student population, resides a significant proportion of low-income, minority, and first generation college students. In 2002, 47% of African American students, 56% of Hispanic students, and 57% of Native American students were enrolled in community college programs, according to Achieve the Dream. Achieving the Dream is a multiyear project focused on the student, and it aims to help him or her reach individual goals. With a large and diverse student population, tracking students and meeting their individual needs is a daunting undertaking.

Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count began its mission of improving the success of community college students in 2004. The initiative primarily focuses on minority and low-income students. It concentrates on enrollment, and takes a look at the larger picture, focusing on students and their academic success. Developing longitudinal data, Achieving the Dream tracks a cohort of students and compiles the data in a national database. Researchers use this database to analyze trends and students’ progress.

Norwalk Community College

In 2005, Norwalk Community College was chosen for the second round of community colleges joining the Achieving the Dream initiative. Norwalk President David Levinson has been a supporter of this initiative at his college and beyond. As a sociologist, Levinson praises the initiative’s work, calling it a "research-oriented initiative that really pushes institutions to be data driven when it comes to decision making." He sees it as "taking the worlds of research methodology and scholarly analysis and applying it to the everyday concerns that we have in terms of providing access and hopefully success for our students."

As a participating college in the Achieve the Dream program, Norwalk and other colleges undertake a number of core commitments. Colleges are required to be open and honest about their current performance. With a focus on student success, participating colleges work to increase the number of students who complete developmental courses and continue on to credit-bearing courses; complete gatekeeper courses; enroll in continuous semesters; and earn certificates and degrees. Achieving the Dream colleges have pledged to take the following steps: Use data to drive strategies, monitor progress, and evaluate outcomes; develop strategies to close performance gaps; involve faculty, staff, and communities in developing and implementing these strategies; and report data outcomes on and off campus.

One of the largest differences between Achieving the Dream schools and others is the way data are collected. Vanessa Smith Morest, who has worked with the initiative through the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, and as a consultant at Norwalk Community College, said, "All of the analysis done at community colleges is cross sectional… mostly focused on enrollment. Community colleges, because of their access mission, emphasize enrollment and that permeates everything." Achieve the Dream turns the focus of community colleges to student achievement. "Access is important, but the other part of that is that students come in the door and they get lost." Morset said, "The focus of Achieving the Dream is to start conceptualizing the first semester at a community college as the first semester where you are starting and you can actually follow a cohort of students as they go through the college." This includes following those students though developmental courses and beyond their originating institution.

After Data Collection

After reviewing the data collected on student achievement, specific strategies are implemented based on the individual school’s need. A majority of the colleges that joined the initiative in 2004 found a need to improve developmental education. Data showed a large need for these courses and low rates of passing and retention in current courses. Other strategies include improving first-year experiences through better orientation programs and advising, strengthening K-12 links for better college preparation, improving student support services, and engaging the community. Community colleges benefit the community by answering the call for a more educated workforce through open admissions and lower tuition rates.

President Levinson has found that sociology and sociological research play a large role in the Achieving the Dream Initiative. "It is student success centered, but talks about how you can apply research techniques that we use as sociologist to improve the fortune of individual students." When discussing the national meeting of Achieving the Dream schools, Levinson declared it had the feel of a sociology conference rather than a meeting of college administrators. He also sees a large number of sociologists involved in the project, especially within partner organizations of the initiative. The initiative, "allows us to take our sociological imagination and really apply to some concrete practical results and really impact peoples lives." small_green

For more information, visit www.achievingthedream.org.

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