Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

May 15, 2017

Colleges That Get It: One Institution’s Journey

by Dan Greenstein

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, one of our longtime institutional partners. As I talked with students, faculty, and campus leaders (and even got to fly a drone!), I marveled at the fact that Sinclair is awarding 40 percent more credentials than just four years ago, and their graduates are finding good jobs in the community.

So how did they do it? And are there insights in their story for other colleges and universities? These are not academic questions, as a survey just out from New America finds that a majority of Americans believe that institutions have a role to play in helping more students get to graduation.

I’ve spent some time with Sinclair’s leadership over the past several years, and I think they would be the first to say that there is no “secret sauce” behind the results they are seeing. They would, however, point to a handful of factors as critical to their success.

Persistence. Sinclair’s work to improve its completion numbers began well before our foundation came on the scene or there was even a completion movement. That continuity of focus has lasted through changes in leadership and the ups and downs of state funding. It takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t in changing policy and practice, which makes staying power so important.

Focus. In addition to being focused on student persistence and completion, the college has become more focused in applyig its resources, doing less of some things in order to do more of others and making strategic choices about efforts with the best return for students. This is especially relevant in a time of increasingly constrained resources, as institutions and organizations (including foundations) are usually very good at adding new initiatives but often struggle when it is time to discontinue old ones.

Risk Taking. Also in the vein of strategic choices, Sinclair has also demonstrated a willingness to venture into new areas ahead of the curve, with no guarantee of success. This was certainly the case in the development of its Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) programming, which is now a recognized industry leader and home to the nation’s first permanent UAS flying facility.

Use of Data. Like high performing or high potential institutions, Sinclair began its push to improve student outcomes with a hard look at the numbers. College leaders identified several key loss points for their students and set out to address them. One particularly promising development has been the creation of My Academic Plan (MAP), an advising software tool that helps students plot a course to graduation. Completion rates for students using MAP are twice that of students not using it.

Stewardship of Place. By virtue of their name, community colleges are grounded in local needs and local issues. But this has been especially true for Sinclair, which has been a key player in helping Dayton and the surrounding region transition from an industrial economy by developing a skill base in areas such as aerospace and health care. And that is powering renewed economic energy in the birthplace of aviation.

Lasting institutional change is a combination of attention and intention, and Sinclair Community College gets that. And while they recognize that there is still a good distance to travel on their student success journey, they have already made great strides and have learned lessons that can benefit thousands – if not millions – of today’s college students.

Secret sauce? No. Recipe for success? Yes.

Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Originally published on Impatient Optimists.

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