Austin Community College, determined to improve retention and graduation rates, recently took the rare step of inviting companies to bid for a contract to help students earn degrees or certificates.
It’s not unusual for community colleges to work with civic, nonprofit and other groups in guiding students through the education pipeline. However, requesting proposals for “student coaching services,” as the college put it, was a twist that officials at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Association of Community Colleges had never seen before in the Lone Star State.
“The bids received were not practical in terms of cost and delivery of service,” said Jessica Vess, an ACC spokeswoman. Proposed costs and other details of the bids were not disclosed publicly.
The episode underscores how the college, with 11 campuses and 38,462 students, is getting increasingly serious and creative about stepping up advising. Among the reasons: Despite some improvement, ACC’s graduation rate remains well below the statewide average for community colleges. Many of its students get little or no one-on-one help from advisers who could help them stay on track.
Beefing up advising is a priority for many of the state’s 50 community college districts, said Jacob Fraire, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges.
“Advisement is critical,” Fraire said. “The thinking is that it needs to be more targeted to make sure we meet the students where they are. No one wants students to go down academic pathways only to find out that it wasn’t what they really wanted to do and they accumulated credits they really didn’t want.”
Not all that long ago, school administrators would explain away low retention and graduation rates by saying that they have many nontraditional students, such as older students with families and students who work full time.
“I hear that rarely now,” said David Gardner, deputy commissioner and chief academic officer for the Higher Education Coordinating Board. “I think that’s a good trend. If we enroll them, we need to do our dead-level best. It’s their responsibility, too, but they’re paying the school and the school should do whatever it can to address their needs.”
ACC has struggled with low graduation rates for years. Among full-time students attending college for the first time, 26.1 percent who enrolled in ACC in 2008 graduated from ACC or a public university in Texas by 2014, according to Coordinating Board data. Among 2011 enrollees, the graduation rate by 2017 was 27.6 percent; the statewide average was 33.7 percent.
More of ACC’s students are passing
ACC is working to improve graduation and retention rates on a number of fronts.
During the last academic year, the college grouped scores of academic programs into 10 “guided pathways,” including education, business, liberal arts and health sciences, to help students stay on track with required courses. Advisers are specializing in specific areas of study to sharpen their counseling skills. The school recently added 15 advisers, for a total of 50. Still, that leaves the ratio of students to advisers at more than 750 to 1, which means many students get little or no one-on-one help.
The college’s affiliation with Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Md., has helped it use data to determine disparities in student success by gender, income, race and ethnicity, and to focus attention on students at academic risk, said Richard Rhodes, ACC’s president and chief executive.
What’s more, ACC is one of four community colleges in the nation benefiting from a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to San Francisco-based InsideTrack, a company that helps schools boost retention and graduation rates. InsideTrack has been working with a group of 247 ACC students and is also training the school’s advisers in a pilot project that wraps up in spring 2019.
The various efforts are paying off. Course completions with a grade of A, B or C by first-time-in-college students in their initial semester rose from 59 percent in 2009 to 71 percent in 2016, according to ACC’s latest “Student Success Report.” At the same time, a racial and ethnic gap in course completions has narrowed with a course completion rate of 64 percent for Hispanics, 67 percent for blacks and 70 percent for whites.
And although ACC’s request for student coaching proposals said minority male students merited extra focus, their retention rates are also ticking up. For example, 65 percent of black men attending in fall 2017 returned for the spring semester this year; that’s up from 63 percent who persisted from fall 2015 to spring 2016. For the same periods, Hispanic male persistence rose from 68 percent to 70 percent, matching the rate for white men.
Research: Advising does help
A growing body of research shows that intensive academic and career advising yields higher success rates.
Early results from a federally funded study show that a nonprofit in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that provides advising services and other help to low-income college and university students posted impressive results, with 53.5 percent of those students earning a certificate or other credential after two years, as opposed to 45 percent of students who didn’t get such help. The students were randomly assigned to either approach.
The program, operated by a nonprofit known as the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement, or VIDA, uses the same methods as Capital IDEA in Austin. Capital IDEA — its full name is Capital Investing in Development and Employment of Adults — provides a variety of financial support to low-income people pursuing higher education at ACC, including tuition, books, child care and transportation, as well as tutoring and help applying for federal and state financial aid. College Forward provides similar services to students at ACC and other schools.
The services mentioned in ACC’s request for proposals included help with financial aid applications, career information, graduation and transfer advising, and “support emotionally and socially as appropriate.” It would have been a three-year program, with 3,600 students getting the intensive advising in the final year.
Advising remains a work in progress at ACC, with outsourcing as well as increasing the existing staff of advisers to be reassessed in the next budget cycle, according to school officials.
ACC graduation rate lags
Among full-time students attending college for the first time, 26.1 percent who enrolled in Austin Community College in 2008 graduated from ACC or a public university in Texas by 2014.
Among 2011 enrollees, ACC’s graduation rate by 2017 was 27.6 percent; the statewide average was 33.7 percent.
SOURCE: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board