Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

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.

Key Takeaways

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!

Download the Lorain County Community College Case Study