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TCC Struggles to Define Various Degrees of Success

August 6, 2008

By Bill Sizemore, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Aug. 6–Brittany Dixon starts classes this month at Tidewater Community College with a clear goal in mind: In two years, she’ll earn an associate degree that will launch her on the way to a career as a nurse anesthetist.

Statistically, she has about a 1-in-10 chance of reaching that goal.

It’s startling but true: Only 10.8 percent of full-time TCC students graduate from the two-year institution within three years. It’s the third-lowest graduation rate among Virginia’s 23 community colleges and is less than half the nationwide rate.

For years, community colleges focused primarily on access: opening up higher education, once an enclave for the elite, to a broader spectrum of students.

They have succeeded on a grand scale. Today, Virginia’s community colleges serve 250,000 students — two out of every three public undergraduate college students in the state. In 40 years, TCC — whose four campuses now serve nearly 40,000 students a year — has become the biggest institution of higher learning in Hampton Roads.

In a sense, community colleges have become victims of their own success.

A high school diploma is no longer a ticket to a living wage, but tuition rates at four-year colleges are soaring. So community colleges are getting flooded with applicants, and — as open-door institutions — they are required to take all comers. Many, TCC included, are finding it difficult to deal with the onslaught.

Now, with enrollments bulging, administrators are turning their attention to a new challenge: helping more students finish the programs they sign up for.

Graduation rates are at once the dirty little secret of the community college world and a pet peeve of administrators at TCC and around the country who — while acknowledging that it is a legitimate concern — argue that the statistic is a misleading measure of how well they’re fulfilling their mission.

They say graduation rates are rooted in the traditional, four-year model of higher education, a far cry from the nontraditional student body they serve today.

Dixon is a poster child for that new world.

The petite 18-year-old graduated in the spring from Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, where she was homecoming queen. She chose TCC because it is affordable and close to home.

She is a single mother of a 1-year-old son, Adrian, who’ll stay with Dixon’s stepmother while she attends classes. To help make ends meet, she plans to keep working part time at Best Buy, where she is a cashier, while carrying a full course load at TCC.

She approaches those multiple challenges with a confident attitude. “I can do it,” she said during a break at an orientation session last month at TCC’s Chesapeake campus.

But the long odds she faces are keeping the experts up nights.

“It certainly is a huge problem for community colleges and a huge problem for America,” said Robert McCabe, executive director of the National Alliance of Community and Technical Colleges. “We need a well-prepared work force. The forecast long-term is that about 75 percent of jobs will require some post-secondary education.”

Why are graduation rates so low? There are many reasons.

A big one is underpreparation. It is probably no coincidence that while TCC’s graduation rate is among the lowest in the state, it has the highest proportion of students enrolled in remedial classes: 22.4 percent.

That includes students who need help with English or math, or both, with those deficient in math accounting for the largest number.

Typically, McCabe said, about half of underprepared students fail to complete their remedial programs and end up dropping out.

Quality of instruction is another factor. One reason community colleges are so affordable — average annual tuition and fees in Virginia are one-third the cost of the average four-year public college — is that they make heavy use of part-time instructors, who are much cheaper than full-time faculty.

At TCC, less than half of the total credit hours of instruction — 47 percent in the 2006-07 academic year — are taught by full-time faculty. That’s in the middle of the pack among community colleges in Virginia, where the rate ranges from 40 percent to 60 percent.

A 2006 study by Daniel Jacoby, an economics professor at the University of Washington, found a strong correlation between heavy use of part-time faculty and low graduation rates in community colleges.

Jacoby’s findings ring true with McCabe, a retired president of Miami Dade Community College. While part-time, or adjunct, instructors might be highly qualified in their fields of study, he said, their teaching skills are sometimes lacking.

Of particular concern, McCabe said, a high percentage of remedial classes nationally are taught by part-time faculty: “And if there’s any place that students need a lot of help, it’s there.”

Often, Jacoby found, part-time faculty lack offices, phones, mailboxes, computers and other basic equipment to do their work, which makes it harder to meet with and advise students.

Lisa Kleiman, TCC’s director of institutional effectiveness, said part-time instructors at TCC don’t typically have individual offices, but they do have access to a group office area on each campus with phones, computers and college e-mail accounts.

Kleiman noted that TCC pulled its graduation rate up to 10.8 percent in 2007 from 8.3 percent in 2006, when it ranked last among Virginia community colleges. It was the second-best improvement in the state that year.

“We have worked very diligently in the past two to three years trying to address these rates,” she said. “They’re important, but they need to be looked at in a larger frame.”

The formula for the rates, known as Student Right-to-Know rates, was established by Congress in 1990. All colleges must report the data in order for their students to receive federal financial aid.

The pool of students counted in those rates — first-time, full-time students who enroll in a degree program in a given year — amounts to only a small slice of the entire student body. At TCC in 2007, it included 2,014 students — about 5 percent of total enrollment.

A big reason is that two-thirds of TCC students are part-time — students like Bernita Harrison, 26, a 2000 graduate of Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake. She can’t afford to give up her full-time job at Geico, the auto insurer, so she plans to be a half-time student. She hopes to get her associate degree in four to five years.

Many full-time students — like Dixon — juggle jobs on the side too, which reduces their chances of graduating within three years.

Another factor in Hampton Roads is the area’s large military population, whose studies are subject to being interrupted by deployments. “When the war ramped up, we had students who had to leave in the middle of class,” Kleiman said.

Finally, the graduation rates don’t count students who transfer to a four-year college without getting an associate degree. More and more students are choosing that option, Kleiman said, thanks to a growing number of agreements with four-year colleges that make such transfers easier than in the past.

Low graduation rates at TCC and community colleges in other urban areas like Hampton and Richmond reflect, in part, the abundance of four-year options in those areas, Kleiman said. “Graduation rates tend to be higher in rural areas because often the community college is the only game in town,” she said.

As an alternative to graduation rates, Virginia community colleges have devised a more inclusive “success measure” that counts all students who earn a degree, transfer without a degree or still are enrolled after four years. TCC’s rate on that scale was 41.6 percent in 2007, ranking 11th among the 23 colleges in the system. Of that number, 8.1 percent transferred without a degree.

Nevertheless, Kleiman said, TCC administrators recognize that they still have work to do. In recent years, they’ve instituted several measures to help steer more students to successful outcomes, including the summer orientation sessions and a required “college success skills” class that teaches study skills, time management and the like.

“Of the students who come to us, many are first-generation students,” Kleiman said. “They need a lot of support services…. They say, ‘I want to go to college,’ but they don’t really know what it means to be a college student. They don’t have somebody at home who went to college that they can use as a mentor.

“So many are terrified to take that first step — to walk through the door.”

Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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