A learn-at-your-own-pace classroom with more than 600 computers. A growing list of partnerships with Central Texas high schools for dual-credit and early college courses. Closer tracking of struggling students.
These and other initiatives at Austin Community College are intended to boost graduation rates, transfers to four-year universities and other measures of student success that trail state and national averages by substantial margins.
As spring semester classes begin Tuesday, it’s clear that the efforts are beginning to bear fruit. But ACC officials, outside specialists and a new report by the college say the larger challenge is to restructure academic programs and dramatically step up advising to help students select courses best suited to their goals and stay on track to earn a certificate or degree.
With 11 campuses, five smaller-scale centers and about 39,000 students, ACC is a major player in the region’s higher education scene. It offers associate degrees and workforce certificates in myriad fields, as well as core courses for students planning to transfer to a four-year university. It is increasingly the entry point into postsecondary education for the area’s high school graduates, especially those from low-income families.
ACC’s “Student Success Outcomes Report” notes that the number of degrees, certificates and other credentials awarded by the college has risen 71 percent since the 2009-10 academic year, even as enrollment stayed roughly flat.
And while just 47 percent of students passed developmental, or remedial, math in traditional classroom settings, 80 percent passed when they took it in the giant computer lab at ACC’s Highland campus, where they get one-on-one attention from faculty members and tutors.
But Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board data show that ACC’s three-year graduation rate for full-time, first-time-in-college students has remained stubbornly low at a little over 4 percent for years. The average for the state’s community colleges is more than triple that.
The U.S. Education Department, with somewhat different parameters for tracking students and credentials, reports that ACC’s graduation rate went from 4 percent for students who enrolled in 2008 to 8 percent for those who entered in 2011 — still a disappointing data point, school officials say. By comparison, El Paso Community College, in a much poorer part of the state, posted a 13 percent graduation rate.
“It’s shocking. Austin is one of the most dynamic regions economically in the country,” and ACC’s graduation rate ought to exceed 30 percent, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-author of “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.”
Although only about 20 percent of ACC’s entering students are first-time, full-timers who figure in the calculation, such students are much more likely to graduate than part-timers, he said.
Charles Cook, ACC’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, acknowledged the shortcomings. Like many community colleges, ACC historically focused on getting students in the door, he said.
“ACC has lagged the trend of paying a lot more attention to student success as opposed to access,” Cook said.
The college is working to implement recommendations from a 24-member committee of faculty members, staff members and students, Cook said. The panel, dubbed the “Futures Institute,” called for grouping 180 degree and certificate programs into 10 areas of study, such as business, health sciences and liberal arts. Academic advisers, currently expected to be jacks of all trades, will be trained to offer more comprehensive and accurate information in specific areas of study.
‘Put in the work’
Jenny Bragdon, an ACC student, is at once the face of the college’s promise and its challenge. Bragdon so impressed Jill Biden during a visit to the Highland campus in March that the wife of Vice President Joe Biden arranged for her to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week.
Bragdon, 42, wants to become a teacher, but she had to brush up on math before enrolling in college-level classes. The Highland campus computer lab, known as the ACCelerator, allowed her to complete three semesters of developmental math in two semesters.
“If you are willing to put in the work you will reap the benefits,” Bragdon said. “Professors are there, tutors are there, and they’re all available to help with any problems you have. There are also private rooms; one time eight students went in and worked on fractions together.”
Bragdon is taking U.S. history this semester as part of her plan to proceed one course at a time until she and her husband pay down some debt so that she can attend full-time. “But that’s four or five years away,” said Bragdon, who works full-time as a massage therapist but is determined to earn a degree as an example to her 1-year-old daughter, Harriet.
A part-time student must be highly motivated to earn a credential at a community college. ACC’s six-year graduation rate for part-timers is 12 percent; the statewide average for community colleges is 22.7 percent.
Part of the challenge for ACC and other community colleges is that they are essentially open to all comers — people who didn’t finish high school, freshly minted high school graduates, college graduates returning for specialized training and people like Bragdon who haven’t cracked open a textbook in more than 20 years.
That range became clear at a recent open house for spring registration at the Highland campus.
Francis Zepeda, 19, graduated from high school a year ago and attended ACC for a short time before dropping out. She needs to take developmental math but prefers a traditional classroom over the ACCelerator.
“I’m going for early childhood education,” said Zepeda, who works part-time at a clothing store.
Jose Cancino, 24, wants to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a computer systems analyst, but first he must earn a GED certificate.
“Unfortunately, I dropped out of high school in my senior year. I don’t know why,” said Cancino, who has tired of landscaping jobs and wants a better career.
Guiding a large and diverse student body through the educational pipeline would be a challenge at any school, but ACC has handicapped itself to an extent with “no consistent advising structure” across the far-flung district, as a report by the Futures Institute put it.
The dean of student services at Highland, Dorado Kinney, says a student’s first year at ACC should include regular contact with an adviser.
“I think we should have a minimum of six touches per semester, in small groups or individually, especially for the first two semesters,” he said. “It’s important because we can’t assume that they know all the ins and outs of college.”
College officials hope to improve matters by grouping academic programs into “guided pathways,” requiring students to choose a broad field of study and beefing up advising.
This would also make more efficient use of students’ time, as well as of students’ tuition and of taxpayer funds — property taxes levied by ACC and state appropriations — that support the enterprise. ACC students currently earn 104 credits on average en route to an associate degree, compared with 91 credits for community college students statewide. Many such degrees can be earned with 60 credits.
“If you don’t have a goal in mind, you kind of wander,” said Richard Rhodes, ACC’s president and CEO.
The college is also phasing in a required course, “Effective Learning: Strategies for College Success,” designed to teach students about study strategies, career exploration and academic success.
“Culture change takes time,” said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “We hope by the next check-in that the ACC board continues to make targeted investments in the IT (information technology) and student support infrastructure and that many more of the faculty match the zeal and high expectations of ACC leadership.”
Jenkins, who has studied ACC and spoken to school officials, said the college is taking the right steps but will have to be persistent in guiding students.
“They’re really going to have to keep after this,” Jenkins said. “It’s not enough to have it on paper or the website.”