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Community colleges face pressure to "do more with less" that have prompted many college leaders to consider fundamental changes to the ways they have typically done business. Because piecemeal solutions have not often been effective or efficient, colleges are moving far beyond discreet "programs" or "interventions," and are attempting to implement comprehensive reform efforts. This volume conceptualizes comprehensive reform as being marked by: * a focus on student success; * a theory of change that ties programmatic components together in an intentional and cohesive package, implemented at multiple levels throughout the college and touching the majority of students; and * a culture of evidence that uses data to continuously assess programs and processes against student success. Presenting original analyses that describe the rationale for comprehensive reform, this volume examines the challenges involved in implementing, evaluating, and sustaining those efforts. This is the 176th volume of this Jossey-Bass quarterly report series. Essential to the professional libraries of presidents, vice presidents, deans, and other leaders in today's open-door institutions, New Directions for Community Colleges provides expert guidance in meeting the challenges of their distinctive and expanding educational mission.

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New Directions for Community Colleges


Caroline Q. Durdella Nathan R. Durdella ASSOCIATE EDITORS


Comprehensive Reform for Student Success

Nan L. Maxwell Ann E. Person EDITORS

Number 176 • Winter 2016


Comprehensive Reform for Student Success

Nan L. Maxwell, Ann E. Person (eds.)

New Directions for Community Colleges, no. 176

Editor‐in‐Chief:Arthur M. Cohen

Associate Editors:Caroline Q. Durdella, Nathan R. Durdella

Managing Editor:Amy Fara Edwards

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Comprehensive Reform for Student Success


1: The Need for Comprehensive Reform: From Access to Completion

The Growing Focus on College Completion

Barriers to College Completion

The Limitations of Traditional Reform

The Need for Comprehensive Reform



2: Using Research and Evaluation to Support Comprehensive Reform

The First Generation of Reform: Achieving the Dream

The Second Generation of Reform: Completion by Design

The Role of Research in Comprehensive Reform Efforts

Lessons Learned


3: The Redesign of Developmental Education in Virginia

Phase I: Exploration

Phase II: Implementation

Phase III: Pilot Testing

Phase IV: Institutionalization

Lessons Learned: Virginia Redesign as Comprehensive Reform


4: Addressing College Readiness Gaps at the College Door

Planning for Reform

Reform Efforts: California's Early Assessment Program

Investigating Campus Differences in Assessment Rates and Coursetaking


Lessons Learned


5: Transforming the Community College Student Experience Through Comprehensive, Technology-Mediated Advising

Advising at a Typical Community College

A Vision for Transformation

Barriers to Successful Advising Transformation

Lessons Learned



6: Using Career Pathways to Guide Students Through Programs of Study

What Are Career Pathways?

Promoting Career Pathways in Community Colleges

Building Health Care Career Pathways Through TAACCCT

Evaluating and Scaling the H2P Consortium

Lessons Learned


7: Leveraging Technology to Create a Student-Focused Environment

From a Systems Approach to a Craft Method and Back to the Systems Approach

Lessons for Moving Online Technologies Forward


8: Competency-Based Programs as a Lever for Reforming Core Areas Jointly

The Path Toward Competency-Based Education

Implementing Change on Multiple Fronts Simultaneously

The Sinclair Model: Sustainable by Design

Successes, Challenges, and Lessons Learned for Practice


9: Using Data for Continuous Program Improvement

Continuous Improvement Framework

Application of the Framework in Community Colleges

Challenges to Colleges’ Engagement in Continuous Improvement

Successful Examples from the Field

Lessons Learned


10: Implementing Comprehensive Reform: Implications for Practice

The Context

Framing Reform

Reform in Action

Comprehensive Reform 2.0

Lessons from the Challenges to Change



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Table of Contents








































































































Comprehensive Reform for Student Success

In the past decade, community colleges have faced pressures from government, the private sector, and prominent foundations to “do more with less,” even as new postsecondary education providers have increased competition for students and other resources. Such pressures have prompted many community college leaders to consider fundamental changes to the ways they have typically done business. With the experience of piecemeal solutions that have not often been effective or efficient, colleges are moving far beyond discreet “programs” or “interventions,” and college leaders are attempting to implement comprehensive reform efforts.

Although a single, authoritative definition of “comprehensive” reform does not exist, we posit that current manifestations of it share three key components. First, student success is typically the justification for why broad changes are needed and the criterion for what constitutes successful change for today's comprehensive reform efforts. Second, such reforms are grounded in a theory of change that ties programmatic components together in an intentional and cohesive package, implemented at multiple levels throughout the college and touching the majority of students (that is, operating “at scale”). Finally, current comprehensive reform efforts call for colleges to build a culture of evidence that uses data to continuously assess programs and processes against student success, suggesting changes when benchmarks are not achieved.

Achieving the Dream (ATD) is a primary example of contemporary approaches to comprehensive reform and an important point of departure for any thorough discussion of the topic. In shaping ATD, Lumina Foundation for Education and its partners articulated an explicit theory of change behind the sweeping reform they envisioned. At the core of this theory was the development of a culture of evidence that would use data to inform program development and implementation and support continuous improvement. ATD's explicit outcome goal was measurable improvement of student success, specifically increased course and program completion (Rutschow et al., 2011).

Other public and private efforts to improve community colleges have arisen in the wake of ATD, and all share a similar focus on student success, cohesive packaging of scaled programs, and a culture of evidence. In 2010, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Completion by Design (CBD) initiative. CBD set an explicit goal for participating colleges to “restructure the student experience…build linkages and interdependencies among the systems that touch the lives of the students, and…establish clear accountability for student success” (Pennington & Milliron, 2010, p. 3). Similarly, the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program aims to identify and replicate campus-wide practices that significantly improve college student outcomes (Aspen Institute, 2014) and Aspen's Prize for Community College Excellence has put a spotlight on colleges that meet student success performance benchmarks.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants program is the largest public reform effort currently underway in community colleges nationwide. Although the TAACCCT program does not explicitly state a common theory of change for all grantees, it implies such a theory in the program's embrace of measureable student success goals similar to ATD: increased credit accumulation and credential completion, as well as improved employment outcomes for students (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012). Moreover, the program encourages aspiring grantees to propose multiple programmatic components and to specify how these components will work together to support student success. Finally, the TAACCCT program requires regular performance measurement and asks grantees to describe how they will use data to support continuous program improvement.

In addition to these national programs, comprehensive reform efforts have also emerged at the state level. In some cases, change has been driven from within a state's community college system. The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) Re-Engineering Taskforce, which was established by the chancellor in 2009, seeks to “examine and rethink every aspect of [VCCS] organization and operations other than governance” (VCCS, 2010, p. 1) and provides one example of such efforts. Other state-level reforms have been driven by legislation, as in the case of Florida's statutory changes to the K–20 education code, which specified—among other things—that the state's public colleges should adopt common assessments for academic placement, implement a system of metamajors across all colleges, and counsel students into college-level courses as soon as possible. Similarly, the California legislature's establishment of the state's Early Assessment Program, although focused on assessment in high schools, has far-reaching implications for the state's community colleges.

This volume of New Directions for Community Colleges presents chapters that examine several contemporary comprehensive reform efforts. The reforms we discuss include state and federal government and foundation-sponsored initiatives, but all emphasize the three common elements described previously: a focus on measurable student success, an intentional and cohesive packaging of programmatic components to be implemented at scale, and a culture of evidence. Each chapter in the volume presents original analysis, discussing implications of the research for practice, and each ends with a set of recommendations for practice in community colleges.

The authors’ empirical approaches provide insight on how comprehensive “interventions” can best be analyzed and the evidence presented in their chapters enhances our understanding of the promise and perils of comprehensive reform. Across the chapters, a few components emerge as critical for the success of comprehensive reform efforts, in particular, executive leadership complemented by strong faculty involvement, guided by an explicit and shared vision for success. Technology can play a key role in comprehensive reform, but the research presented here suggests that the adaptive capacity of institutions is equally critical. At least two common challenges emerge across the chapters, as well. First, the difficulty of balancing a real need for pilot-testing with the ultimate goal of scaled change. A second challenge, flowing from the first, is how to assess the impacts of a package of interventions, pieces of which touch the entire student population. Although the authors do not resolve these issues, their discussion of implications from their research helps to ensure that community college practitioners can use information from the chapters to inform their own efforts to improve student success.

The volume is organized to examine comprehensive reform from different perspectives. We set the stage with the first two chapters that take a bird's-eye view of reform: framing the problem, assessing the evidence to date, and suggesting implications for future reform efforts. Each author brings a broad perspective on the rationale for and potential of comprehensive reform, gleaned from their long tenure working with community colleges. The first chapter, by Tom Bailey, discusses current challenges facing community colleges and describes why reform must be comprehensive if the challenges are to be resolved. The second chapter, by Tom Brock, Alex Mayer, and Elizabeth Zachry Rutshow, draws lessons from two national initiatives for comprehensive reform, ATD and CBD, to suggest how rigorous evaluations can help community colleges realize the potential of comprehensive reform.

The next six chapters provide empirical assessment of a variety of reform efforts, focusing their analysis on different aspects of students’ movement into and through community colleges. The first three chapters in this section discuss student preparation for and navigation through community college coursework. The first, by Nikki Edgecombe, discusses findings from an evaluation of Virginia's statewide overhaul of developmental education and the second, by Elizabeth Friedmann, Michal Kurlaender, and Alice VanOmmeren, discusses findings from an evaluation of California's statewide effort to improve college preparation while students are still in high school. In the third, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Melinda Mechur Karp discuss comprehensive new “e-advising” approaches that leverage technology to help students make choices that will improve their chances for successful program completion. The next three chapters examine the full student experience. Debra Bragg and Marianne Krismer explore the nature and structure of programs of study to facilitate retention, graduation, and workforce success. Linda Thor and Joseph Moreau illustrate how community colleges can use technology to build a student-centric teaching and learning environment at a system level. Finally, Ann Person and Nancy Thibeault describe a multistate effort to implement competency-based learning to improve student success both at the community college and in careers.

The two final chapters in the volume take a step back to consider the perspective of college practitioners in the trenches of reform. These chapters discuss the challenges that arise with leading, implementing, and learning from reform. The first, by Nan Maxwell and Ann Person, discusses the gaps that must be bridged for colleges to develop a culture of evidence that can support continuous improvement. The final chapter, by Karen Stout, provides a community college president's perspective on the practical opportunities and challenges faced in implementing comprehensive reforms.

Several individuals were instrumental in helping shape this volume, in addition to the chapter authors. Kendall Guthrie, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, helped stimulate the discussion from which this volume sprang during the American Evaluation Association meetings in 2013. Nathan Durdella, our editor, pushed our thinking from volume inception through publication.

Nan L. Maxwell Ann E. PersonEditors


Aspen Institute. (2014). College Excellence Program. Retrieved from

Pennington, H., & Milliron, M. (2010).

Completion by design: Concept paper

. Seattle, WA: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from

Rutschow, E. Z., Richburg-Hayes, L., Brock, T., Orr, G., Cerna, O., Cullinan, D., … & Martin, K. (2011).

Turning the tide: Five years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges

. New York: MDRC. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. (2012). Notice of availability of funds and solicitation for grant applications for Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program, SGA/DFA PY-12-10. Retrieved from

Virginia Community College System. (2010). Report of Virginia's Community Colleges’ Re-Engineering Task Force. Retrieved from




Nan L. Maxwell and Ann E. Person

are senior researchers at Mathematica Policy Research.


This chapter examines why typical reforms at community colleges in recent years have not improved institutional graduation rates. It argues that substantially increasing college completion requires comprehensive institutional reform with a focus on measurable student success, an intentional and cohesive package of programmatic components, and a culture of evidence.

The Need for Comprehensive Reform: From Access to Completion

Thomas Bailey

Over the last few decades, the importance of a college education has grown both for society and for individuals. This is reflected in the large earnings gap between individuals with a high school degree and those with a postsecondary credential (Belfield & Bailey, 2011). However, most students who start in community colleges never complete a degree or certificate. This constitutes a failure for those students to achieve their goals and represents a loss of potential earning power and economic growth and activity for the economy as a whole. Although students experience earnings gains by accumulating credits without graduating, they get a significant additional increase upon completing a credential (Belfield & Bailey, 2011).

This chapter considers what types of reform and innovation are most likely to increase the chances that community college students will complete their credentials. It first discusses the shift from a reform focus on college access to one emphasizing college completion; it then reviews the barriers to improvement in college completion, arguing that community colleges have been organized to expand enrollment to a greater part of the population, but that organization is not well suited to promote completion of credentials. The chapter also reviews the types of reforms that have been introduced to improve completion and shows that these interventions have had limited effects. Significant improvements in college completion will require more comprehensive reforms that address the organizational barriers to student success. The editors of this volume have emphasized three elements of such reform: a focus on measurable student success, an intentional and cohesive package of programmatic components, and a culture of evidence. In addition, to have an impact on college completion rates, reforms must be scaled to include most of the target student population, and they must address the entire student experience in college.

The Growing Focus on College Completion

Public higher education policy in the latter half of the 20th century was designed to open college to the large majority of the U.S. population. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill); the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960; the Higher Education Act of 1965, which established the Pell Grant; and the rapid growth of community colleges were all designed to make college accessible for all students. They focused on reducing the cost of college to the student and, in the case of community colleges, established open access, and flexible, convenient colleges in reasonable proximity to a large majority of the population, including especially groups traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education. At the same time, technology and the characteristics of work were also changing, resulting in increasing demand for a more educated workforce. These factors contributed to increases in college enrollment, such that by the turn of the century, over 75% of high school graduates had attended some postsecondary institution by their mid-20s (author's calculations using data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, National Center for Education Statistics 2002).

But over the last 20 years, educators and policy makers have turned their attention to college completion. Although progress on enrollment cast community college performance in a positive light, the more recent focus on completion yields a much more negative image. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Education began publishing 3-year graduation rates for most colleges that tracked cohorts of first-time, full-time college students who started in community college. Graduation rates for many colleges were in the single digits and teens. The overall 3-year completion rate for community college students nationwide was 24% for the 2000 cohort and 20% for the 2010 cohort (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014, Table 326.20). Researchers, college representatives, and policy makers have criticized this rate as incomplete and misleading (Bailey, Jenkins, & Leinbach, 2005). But more comprehensive measures from the 1990s showed that less than 40% of entering community college students completed any degree or certificate from any college within 6 years (author's calculation from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, National Center for Education Statistics 1988).

In response to low completion rates, educators, reformers, policy makers, and foundations called for a concerted effort to increase the number of individuals with college degrees and certificates, which has come to be called the “completion agenda.” The Obama administration, Lumina Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all called for ambitious increases in the number of college graduates by the middle of the 2020s (Bailey, 2012; Lumina Foundation, 2010). Many states have set goals designed to contribute proportionately to the national goals (Complete College America, 2015). In addition, the federal government and multiple foundations have funded extensive research and reform portfolios.

Barriers to College Completion

Students and colleges will need to overcome a number of challenges to achieve the ambitious goals of the completion agenda. Community college students tend to face many serious barriers to success: low-income students are significantly overrepresented in community colleges (Carnevale & Strohl, 2010) and most need to strengthen both academic and nonacademic skills.

Despite the substantial needs of their student populations, community colleges are given comparatively few resources. In 2011, public 2-year institutions spent about $8,100 (in 2011 dollars) per student; in contrast, institutions in the public master's sector spent just over $12,000 (College Board, 2014, Figure 19A). Thus, the colleges whose students have the greatest needs have the fewest resources to address those needs.