Building a culture of student success rooted in an institution’s own data and needs
By Jeffrey Selingo
For much of its history, Lorain County in northern Ohio was defined by manufacturing. Steel mills and automobile plants sustained the local economy, attracting generations of high-school graduates who chose stable jobs with good pay and benefits over a college degree. But in the last decade, as manufacturing began to decline, not only did laid-off workers in many industries start enrolling at the local community college for retraining, so did a new generation of high-school graduates who wanted to swap the assembly line for the classroom.
Lorain County Community College (LCCC) was designed for access, however, not necessarily completion. The college was unprepared for students who wanted to earn a degree but then often didn’t make it to graduation. In 2011, LCCC retained fewer than six in ten students. Its three-year graduation rate was 8 percent. For African American students, it was only 1 percent.
At first, the college defended itself against criticism of its graduation rates, saying federal graduation statistics measured only full-time, first-time students—less than 10 percent of its enrollment. But even under that definition, the college struggled to get students a degree. At the same time, the two-year college was confronting an uncomfortable reality in its home county: a growing economic and educational gap. Nearby affluent suburbs were filled with college graduates while high-school graduates clustered in low-income urban centers.
The shifts in the local job market and demographics exposed an institution ill adapted to meeting the needs of the modern student and the economy. “We had to change in order to move adults up the socio-economic ladder to have a more meaningful life and contribute to the region’s economy,” said Marcia Ballinger, the president of Lorain County Community College, who started working at the college in 1991. She was named president in 2016
LCCC isn’t alone among colleges and universities in feeling the pressure for higher graduation rates, better retention, and more engaged students. Nowhere is that more true than at community colleges nationwide. Only 20 percent of full-time students seeking degrees at two-year colleges earn degrees within three years.
- Alliances of institutions must offer more than just the opportunity to work side by side; they need to offer intense coaching and technical assistance to provide colleges with a critical outside perspective that helps identify an institution’s blind spots.
- Institutional networks with common goals, rather than a fuzzy notion of cooperation, can better help colleges learn from each other.
- Before diving into student success initiatives, institutions should clean up and organize data systems so that everyone on campus starts with a common set of facts. The result is that incremental improvement on various metrics are well understood—both to celebrate progress and note needed course corrections.
- Presidents must take an active role in establishing support for reforms, making it clear that student success is a high priority and constantly and consistently communicating it at all levels of the institution.
- Given the relatively short tenures of college presidents, institutions should move quickly to reorient campus services toward students, knowing reforms will take years to show progress. Leaders should design their reform agenda by making bets on the long term but also telling the short-term story that creates the ongoing support they need along with some quick wins.
- With daily demands constantly pushing against longer term priorities of improving retention and graduation rates, campus-wide teams can work across administrative and academic silos that exist on campuses. These teams should have well-defined tasks, with specific plans to end their work when completed to avoid scope creep.
While Lorain’s administrators had many ideas about what needed to be done to improve student success, they got stuck where leaders usually do when trying to transform their institutions: how to do it. The simplest solution was to copy the playbook of other institutions or take ideas gathered at higher-education conferences. But such strategies usually lead to disappointing outcomes. For one, college officials lack a larger appreciation for the diversity and complexity of the underlying challenges they face. Second, they find it difficult to easily translate the success of other institutions to a campus with different administrative and faculty structures.
Instead, Lorain County Community College, with an enrollment of 11,000 students, drew up an original blueprint to solve its particular set of issues. While the plan was informed by what worked on other campuses, LCCC’s strategy was rooted in data on its own students and assisted by a network of other higher-education institutions. The result? The college’s three-year graduation rate is now 23 percent. Lorain’s impressive gains, which have garnered national attention, suggest four key approaches that institutions could follow to jumpstart their own student success efforts!