Data-driven support improves student completion rates at community college

John Carter is studying to become a firefighter and paramedic. He stopped attending school in 3rd grade and didn’t return until age 19, when he started a recovery program to complete his high school education. Today, Carter, 24, is a community college student and volunteers with at-risk youth. He is excited to finish his training and start his career.

Colleges around the nation are working to improve student completion rates for increasing numbers of non-traditional students like Carter. They are doing this by using data to identify barriers – and develop solutions – to student attrition such as reforming developmental education and providing end-to-end academic advising.

Today, more than half of undergraduate students are ‘independent’: 24 years or older, responsible for their finances and possibly supporting dependents. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that non-traditional student enrollment in college will grow more than twice as fast as traditional age students by 2022.

When Carter was in 3rd grade, the school principal told his family he was struggling to read and would need to return to 2nd grade. “I felt worthless. Kids made fun of me, and the principal and teacher made me feel dumb. I told my mom, ‘I would rather not live than go back.’ She pulled me out of school, and we ran from the cops until I was 18.”

When Carter decided to return to school at 19, his mother suffered from cancer and died that year. He forged on with his high school education and began his postsecondary studies at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, where he feels supported academically and professionally.

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Community colleges have historically attracted more non-traditional students than four-year colleges. Sinclair, a two-year school with around 24,000 students, has closely tracked student academic and financial data since 2000 to improve its graduation rate and increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded yearly. Between 1999 and 2013, Sinclair saw a 75 percent increase in the number of students who earned degrees or certificates, transferred or were enrolled in good standing.

As the associate provost for student completion at Sinclair, Kathleen Cleary has a potential Sisyphean task: with a finite budget, increase graduation rates while maintaining high-caliber courses. The school’s simple — but-not-so-simple — solution is to focus on students of all backgrounds and demographics, not just full-time students right out of high school, she said.

“Full and part-time students progress at different rates,” Cleary said, “and it is difficult to compare students who take a term off to those who progress straight through, including summers.”

Sinclair and other schools work with partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to adopt a research-based approach to these difficulties.  In Sinclair’s case, the partnership works to increase college completion rates through data-driven initiatives like Completion by Design, which identifies where and when schools are losing students, and provides strategies and supports to address those loss points.

“Planning with Completion by Design has allowed us to identify a number of areas of improvement for student completion,” said Steven Johnson, president and CEO of Sinclair. “Through a full review of institutional policies and practices, we hope to remove barriers to student access, progression and completion.”

Data collection and customized student support go hand in hand with Sinclair’s “My Academic Plan” — or MAP — that students are expected to use each semester. Students can self-monitor their progress while advisors and professors access data and send alert messages for task completion or more support. In spring 2014, 87 percent of new students used the MAP. Data showed that students who use the system were two times more likely to graduate as those who did not.

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Sinclair’s data also pointed to a major roadblock to student success: on average, about 60 percent of its students have been referred to developmental education in the past two years, Cleary said. To quickly help students become college-ready, Sinclair collaborates with local high schools to provide developmental education before and during college and has retooled its own courses to better meet returning students’ needs.

Ryan Hurst, 29, spent 11 years in the Marine Corps before starting college. To refresh his math skills, he enrolled in Sinclair’s math academy to fill his academic gaps without a complete semester of study.

“I was out of school for so long and needed to refresh my skills, but I knew I didn’t need to sit through entire classes,” Hurst said. With this self-paced online course in a teacher-led classroom, he was able to address weak areas and skip the concepts he already knew. After six weeks, Hurst completed two math courses and received credit hours toward completing his degree .

The academy’s success rates typically run about 5-10 percent higher for each course than traditional courses, Cleary said. Students who test into the lowest level of developmental math and participate in the academy and other refresher programs complete their entire sequence at more than double the rate of the traditional classes.

Sinclair also trains and supports faculty to better advise students and intervene proactively when needed. And all students participate in a mandatory orientation, an online academic plan and ongoing academic and career advising.

Carter said these supports at Sinclair “give you the opportunity and a second chance.”