A person would think that when you enroll in a community college, you’d rocket through first-year courses. Blast through a second year, and it’s onward to graduation, then a university or into a career.
That’s not always reality.
Many students arrive at Oregon community colleges unprepared for the rocket ride. They don’t “test into” first-year college math and writing courses. It’s not bad that students arrive unprepared. Community colleges exist to help local folks get the training they need — no matter where they are with skills.
Unprepared doesn’t mean students aren’t smart. In the past, students who didn’t test well had to enroll in a lengthy series of developmental classes.
“It takes a long time for people to make it through. They get frustrated and they quit,” said Ali Mageehon, vice president of instruction at Southwestern Oregon Community College.
SWOCC worked to fix that over the past six years. The college now is a model in the state for streamlining and shortening the time students spend in those classes.
Six years ago, of the students who had to enroll in the lowest developmental math, only 22 percent stayed in college. For those in developmental writing, only 27 percent made it through.
Today, SWOCC has seen a 14 percent increase the number of students who stay in school to complete their training, graduate or transfer to a university. Overall, three out of four of the college’s students complete a degree or certificate, or transfer.
“Our college is ahead of other colleges because of our faculty and their engagement with student success,” Mageehon said. “Our writing and math faculty are very good. They get it.”
A focus on the fundamentals
The push to improve students’ ability to succeed started with the Oregon Community College Association. OCCA brought folks from the state’s 17 colleges together to share ideas. More dialog among more people opened more possibilities. The top priority was to move students through developmental classes faster.
A few years ago, a SWOCC student testing into developmental level courses could expect to spend a year taking three classes in math, three classes in reading, and three classes in writing. It added a year or more to their time in college. At a rural college where most students are low-income, that’s not an option.
SWOCC’s writing and math faculty cut unnecessary curriculum. They focused classes on the fundamentals. They combined the six reading and writing classes into one single four-credit class. Classes are small. Students are paired with tutors. In math, the college uses a self-paced ALEKS software program. Students work at their own pace with a teacher there supporting them. Tutors are always available if they stall.
“Here is one of our best statistics. Just over a year ago, only 46 percent of our students passed Math 20, our lowest level math class. Now with ALEKS, 74 percent pass,” said Rod Keller, SWOCC’s dean of developmental education.
The other change that has cut the quit-rate is Oregon’s community colleges no longer require students who aren’t pursuing science and engineering degrees to take the math required for those professions. Instead, they learn everyday life math — math required to survive in society. That includes the basics of personal finance, and practical probability, statistics, and problem-solving.
Busting the testing myth
On the front end, SWOCC is more strategic in placing students in classes, too. The goal is eliminating barriers.
College placement testing hasn’t proven to be accurate, and there’s less emphasis on that choosing where to place students. A lot of people don’t test well. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the brains and skills to succeed in college entry-level classes.
“We look at the person,” Mageehon said. “If a student comes from high school with calculus, we place the student where the student belongs rather than testing.”
Advisors consider the whole student, which is a better predictor. They look at a person’s grades, interests and motivation. Highly motivated people excel, when they get the support they need.
“It’s the whole idea of we are here to serve the people where they are. We aren’t setting up arbitrary entry points,” said OCCA’s Elizabeth Cox Brand, whose work with colleges focuses on improving student success.
The state of Oregon has a goal of every Oregonian earning a high school diploma, and that 40 percent will have an associate degree or professional certificate, and 40 percent will have a bachelor’s degree or better.
Cox Brand says there’s no way Oregon will get there without community colleges, which serve 90 percent of the state geographically. The way SWOCC is helping those students who show up with the most need in math, reading and writing eliminates barriers.
Training people for local jobs
Bottom line, community colleges adapt and offer programs employers need. When rural students get that training, they get jobs and take home more money, which improves communities’ economies.
More than half of SWOCC’s students are the first in their families to go to college. That becomes a barrier in the sense that these students want job training, but they don’t know how to be a college student. They may not have grown up with parents or siblings who teach them how to study. They may not understand a syllabus.
“Small classes, faculty that teach for the attention and assistance, and 1-on-1 coaching that students need that helps them get though — you don’t get that at a university,” Cox Brand said.
That support makes a significant difference, especially for students who may have been told all their lives that they’re not smart, she added. It also helps people break ongoing generations of poverty and combats inequality.
Statistically, a parent’s level of education impacts a child’s likelihood of getting an education. If parents go to college and get job training that translates into living-wage jobs, their children are more likely to get the support they need at home around education. They are more likely to aspire to and train for fulfilling jobs that support families and make communities healthier.