Victory – Or Is It?

From Inside Higher Ed comes word that we will soon be holding “Last Rites for Graduation Rate.”  The article says,

The Education Department has announced its plans to change how student success is measured in higher education, taking into account students who transfer, part-time students and students who are not attending college for the first time. The department outlined its plans Wednesday to carry out the recommendations of the Committee on Measures of Student Success, a federal panel that called for changing how data on completion rates and other measures at community colleges is reported in the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System, or IPEDS.

Since I started working at CCC in April 2010 consulting on the launch of Reinvention, I have heard the arguments against using graduation rate as the measure of success. “Our students are non-traditional.” “They don’t all come here to get a degree.” “Graduation rate doesn’t measure everything important about our students and our college.”

Two years in, I agree with those arguments. I also feel that the new measures may reveal a sad underlying truth. We are not serving our students as well as we could and should.

When all the new measures are mashed together and reported, I fear that we will still not look good in comparison to peer institutions. I like the movement of the Department of Education. I am hopeful that the new measures will give us a more accurate picture of how we are serving students. Yet I know from looking at our processes, operations and systems that we are not yet a world-class institution. We have world-class intentions, and world-class commitment by faculty and staff, but we do not have world-class execution.

We have made progress. Registration lines no longer stretch around the lobby. We have halved our advisor::student ratio. We hired more tutors for our students. District-wide, we have doubled the transfer rate to DePaul University and increased the number of transfers to IIT from 26 to 80.

We can do more. This past winter, VP Metoyer launched a “Graduation Initiative.” We found that almost 600 students had 60 or more credits – enough to graduate. Faculty and advisers called every single student, asking how we can support their efforts. We will expand this effort next fall, making contact with the over 1,300 students who have 45 credits or more to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them.

We need to do a better job of communicating pathways to our students. Many of us feel that students are served best when they are free to choose their own path. (I find this slightly ironic, given who at HWC makes the argument to me and the counterweight that Milton and Rose Friedman preached freedom of choice to support free market principles.) I argue that we need to be more directive with our students. If they don’t need the guidance, fine. But I suspect many more are asking for guidance, help, and prescriptive pathways that help them understand what success looks like – in the form of attaining General Education and degree requirements.

We need to be more deliberate in measuring what works, and then invest more in those items, and what doesn’t, and walking away from the failed projects. I am learning that I need to be more open to experimentation. Dean of Instruction Sarrafian is proposing in this year’s budget an “Innovation Fund.” After initially resisting the idea, I have come to embrace it (although I caveat the heck out of it – it is still a proposal and needs to go through the budget process.) The idea is to support great idea proposals from faculty and staff that help us meet Reinvention goals with funding, a form of idea incubator.

We need to do the little things right. This week, under the leadership of Brandon Pendleton’s “Service Excellence Committee,” we launched a new phone configuration that will fix the baobab-like phone trees we had previously. Brandon, working with Dan Freitag, has re-configured our phones so that it will be easier for students to reach us and that we will be more responsive. We need to keep fixing those little things that create big obstacles in how well we serve our students.

My hope is that when these new measures come out – and it could take years for this to happen – we will have made enough progress on things like giving every student a clear picture of what success means, the support to get there, and the skills to succeed afterward, that we will measure up. Until then, we need to keep working to have our execution match our intentions. If we do that, the numbers will take care of themselves.


Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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