How is Obama’s plan affecting community college practice?

Community college leaders say aligning daily practices with Obama’s two years free plan furthers mission to help all students excel.

community-accessPresident Obama’s proposed “free community college” plan sounds great in theory, but how does this proposal affect community colleges? Will key characteristics like mission, administrative duties, and even curriculum, need to change?

According to Obama’s plan, U.S. students would get two free years of community college if they attend at least half-time and earn good grades. Rather than see this call-to-action as a challenge, many higher education leaders, like Dr. Karen Stout, say the plan actually helps their institutions further their missions.

Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., said the proposal–which, if passed, would provide $1.36 billion to the America’s College Promise proposal–is “At the heart of our community college mission, which is access and affordability. The America’s College Promise proposal hits both of those.”

Stout said the college will continue to work on programs that reflect Obama’s call while waiting for more details on the plan in order to coordinate a “full-force response.”

(Next page: 3 ways campuses are taking Obama’s call-to-action into practice)

1. Providing resources from start to finish

According to Stout, a key aspect of Montgomery Community College’s student success agenda is not only helping students afford college, but providing resources that aid students in earning a degree with marketplace value.

Stout said student success goes beyond free tuition.

“It’s one thing to help students afford college,” Stout said. “It’s another thing to have the systems in place to help them finish and complete.”

Stout emphasized the importance of fully supporting the college’s Student Success Network, which she said means “making sure we have policies and practices and people and technology in place to guide students from entry into college, to the selection of a career path, to the selection of an educational pathway that matches that career path, to financial planning, so that they can graduate with ‘free tuition.’”

Stout added that students have to pay additional costs on their path to completing their degree, as well as put forth effort to find employment or gain admission into a transfer institution for a Bachelor’s degree.

2. Filling the skills gap

Another part of the process of creating a Student Success Network is networking daily.

“I think there’s always opportunities for us to work collaboratively with employers in our regional areas to make sure that our curriculum’s relevant,” she said.

Stout said a recent meeting between the community college and STEM-related businesses rose concerns about “how under-prepared new workers are for the jobs that currently exist.”

The businesses and college representatives agreed that there is a skills gap, particularly in writing and computing abilities, which both employers and local community colleges are responsible for filling together.

Ed Cuoco, an adjunct writing and communications faculty member at Bunker Hill Community College and Wentworth Institute of Technology in Massachusetts, said he has seen a similar skills gap.

Cuoco said part of addressing this is teaching “more skills that can be applied or re-purposed for various careers.”

3. Improving student success through technology

Stout anticipates technology playing a strong role both in building a Student Success Network and in online and face-to-face curriculum delivery.

One way in which Stout said the institution is attempting to improve student success outcomes through technology is with Integrated Planning Advising Services (IPAS). She said the program can inform students about their class performance and degree progress. IPAS also can give faculty information about student success to allow for intervention when necessary.

The combined graduation and transfer rate for Montgomery Community College after three years is about 48 percent. The fall-to-fall retention rate is 58 percent.

Stout said the institution’s nursing and medical assisting programs have 80 to 100 percent job placement rates once student pass national exams and obtain their licenses.

Another way the school tracks student behavior and outcomes is through Blackboard Learn, a learning management system it has used for more than a decade.

According to Katie Blot, senior vice president of education services at Blackboard, the system can provide data on individual students, also well as aggregate data regarding student behavior.

Blot said this information “gives educators insights that can help them tailor services to work better for learners: from course offerings to curriculum to student services.”

Blot said technology can transform education for non-traditional, online learners, which currently make up about 85 percent of the higher education demographic.

“The right mix of technology can help students progress through their education, prepare for a future job and become valuable, contributing members of our economy,” she said.

Rebecca Lundberg is an editorial intern with eSchool Media.

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