Jaynes: Reflections on What Excellent Community Colleges Do

Below are remarks by Tom Jaynes, senior vice president of Institutional Advancement and Support, provided during Durham Tech’s employee meeting on January 31.

At the beginning of this academic year, Dr. Ingram encouraged us to focus our attention on helping students finish what they start.  As you may know, national, state, and local attention to student completion and graduation rates has been growing.  Several factors contribute to this attention – increased use of performance funding using completion rates, national attention to low completion rates for community college attendees, concerns about income and racial inequities in completion, as well as local questions from our trustees and our community partners about our college’s student completion rates as compared to other NC Community College students.

FILE PHOTO: Senior Vice President Tom Jaynes speaks at Convocation in the Multi-Purpose Room in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Senior Vice President Tom Jaynes speaks at Convocation in the Multi-Purpose Room in 2015.

I think it’s safe to say that we commonly agree that helping students finish what they start is important. I bet that we also agree that designing our strategies, finding ways to scale, measuring our progress, funding these changes, and achieving higher completion rates is quite complex and often feels daunting.  I know this challenge is something that keeps me up at night.  I often ask myself and you – with all we’ve done over the past decade at Durham Tech to impact student success, why haven’t we experienced significant gains in student completion?

Part of my work plan for this academic year includes gaining a more comprehensive understanding Durham Tech’s completion work.  One way I am doing this is to compare our policies and practices with two other North Carolina community colleges.  I selected Davidson County Community College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College because they are similar in size and because they have higher, consistent completion rates than we do on the NC community college state standard for completion.  At this point, I have compared our demographics, our graduation practices, our financial aid offerings, our early alert and First Year Experience courses, our withdrawal and attendance policies, and our financial support systems for students.  I won’t bore you with the details for each of these comparisons, but the bottom line is this.  From my perspective, Durham Tech offers the same or more distinct support systems (e.g. emergency financial assistance, GoPass transportation, scaled FYE courses, mandated orientation, etc.) to our students.  When it comes to our support systems and our policies and practices, we look quite similar to these two colleges with higher completion rates.  So, my question remains – what gives?

National organizations like Lumina, Achieving the Dream, Completion by Design, and the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence are all focusing resources and talent toward helping community colleges find answers.  To consider these strategies, Dr. Ingram recently asked our Board of Trustees and our President’s Cabinet to read a recent book titled “What Excellent Community Colleges Do” by Joshua Wyner.  This book is organized in chapters on four critical change areas – promising practices for completion, equity and developmental education, learning outcomes, and labor market integration.  The book profiles colleges that have won or were nominated for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a national award given to a college that demonstrates gains in student success.

Permit me to highlight information found in the chapter on completion, share a few key principles, and provide you with a quick snapshot of how we, Durham Tech, compare to these national promising practices.

I will start by sharing some of the context of why this “completion” problem exists as posited in the foreward to this book, written by Anthony Carnevale.  Carnevale frames the history of community colleges by pointing out that we were essentially created in the mid-twentieth century to promote and provide access to students who were not traditionally admitted into universities.  He then goes on to point out that this sole focus of our mission of providing greater access translated into years of progress on open door access without the complementary and necessary focus on completion and progression.  Those of you who have worked here at Durham Tech for many years likely remember that point in the early 2000s when we began to collect retention, progression and completion data for the first time, and we were shocked at what the data told us.  Few students completed.  Few students persisted even past the first semester of enrollment.

Carnevale writes in his forward:

Simultaneous recognition of community colleges’ importance and poor student outcomes translates into enormous pressure. State funding is increasingly being tied to graduation rates (rather than to the number of students enrolled, the traditional method). Federal and state agencies are requiring more public reporting on completion and employment outcomes. And for-profit competitors—investing in technology-based instructional delivery and using private-sector marketing techniques—are enrolling more and more students, including the low-income and minority populations long served by community colleges. To attract students and public dollars in an era of accountability, transparency, and competition, community colleges must deliver significantly more degrees of higher quality at a lower per-pupil cost to an increasingly diverse student population—an equation that adds up to an immense challenge. In the balance is not just the colleges’ survival but also continued opportunity for Americans—particularly the less advantaged—to access the knowledge and skills they need to have a secure future and to fuel our nation’s economic growth. But improvement is not coming easily, or quickly. Almost a decade into a new reform movement, there is not yet complete agreement about what community colleges should aim for, let alone good systems for measuring whether those goals are being attained. And there is not yet even universal acceptance of what, to most reformers, is a vital premise: it doesn’t matter how many students enter community colleges’ doors unless they exit with a meaningful credential in hand.

So here we are.  Ten years in and we are still working hard to solve an immense challenge – increase our student completion rates.

Wyner’s chapter on completion suggests that the direction community colleges should take involves two primary strategies.  Here’s what he says about completion:

But how can institutions filled with millions of students who have historically succeeded at the lowest rates lead the charge to higher completion rates? As community colleges attempt to improve graduation rates, the most effective among them acknowledge that their students have little framework for understanding the actual value of completing a college degree as quickly as possible or navigating the often-opaque world of course and program choices. Two goals emerge as critically important: creating clearer pathways to community college credentials and bachelor’s degrees, and ensuring that students make better choices along the way.

Doesn’t this sound familiar?  Don’t these two principles already resonate here at Durham Tech?  Haven’t we already begun this work?

The answer is … yes, we have.  Durham Tech is already tackling many of the strategies for completion that are outlined and suggested as promising practices by Aspen Prize colleges.

Consider the great work that Durham Tech has done to implement a call center, to introduce texting services for registration and advising line management, to implement Self-Service as a tool to provide online academic plans for students, to advise students each and every term, to create great programs like C-Step and Eagle Connect, to create university course selection guides, and of course, to continue to ensure that the academic rigor of our courses is excellent.

So why haven’t our completion rates changed?  Wyner suggests some additional promising practices as well.  To my knowledge, we have discussed some of these, perhaps piloted some, but have not yet tried any to scale.  Would we be willing to prescribe student schedules for programs that are not health tech programs?  Lake Area Technical College doesn’t give students options for courses.  They ask students to select programs and then tell them their schedules. Should we limit entering student choices to career cluster pathways?  CUNY now gives entering students six basic pathways at the start to ensure no loss of early credits. Have we designed our course offerings for new students in a structured way that makes it easier to gain early credit completion?  Miami Dade found that by restructuring entry courses into pathways, they increased early credit completion by 25%.  How might we expand our middle college and CCP pathways into 3 + 1 offerings? NOVA starts students in high school, structures two years in the community college and transfers students as seniors into universities. Could and should we advocate for guaranteed admission for only associate degree graduates?  Valencia and the University of Central Florida have come to an agreement that only associate degree graduates will be admitted. These are some interesting questions for us to consider as we move forward.

In addition to national promising practices, I think it’s very important that we learn from each other.  Take time to learn from our Health Technologies faculty about the comprehensive work they have accomplished to increase enrollment and persistence rates.  Learn about stackable credentials from our Information Systems faculty. Be inspired by the deep peer review and relationships developed among our English 111 faculty. Consider the personal approach to advising from our Criminal Justice program. Understand the importance of orientation and other connection strategies from our College Success faculty.

The college has worked hard over the past several years to implement key student completion initiatives, including required first-year experiences, integrated online advising and planning, required advising and redesigned placement, redesigned developmental education, new career pathways, short-term credential programs, an array of financial supports like ConnectFunds, GoPasses, and a Food Pantry.  But, we have not yet seen significant gains in overall completion.  What more, what less, or what differently must we do as a college from your perspective to increase student completion?

I encourage our community to continue this conversation until we do realize our ultimate goal, to help all students succeed.


Tom Jaynes

Senior Vice President, Institutional Advancement and Support