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percent for poor andminority
students.
• Life support. New students
in community colleges often are
bewildered by the complexities
they encounter, and student
advising constitutes a crucial
but expensive support system.
Virginia intends to partially
replace one-on-one advising
with an online system featuring
an avatar who will eventually
plan course schedules, track
student success and even nag
when necessary.
Strikingly, Virginia plans to
accomplish these goals without
an increase in per-student
funding from the state between
now and 2015. In fact, DuBois
believes the situation with state
funding is more likely to grow
worse than better. On his recent
tour, he bluntly told the faculty at
NewRiver Community College near Blacksburg, “I think we’re
going to lose another gazillion dollars (in state funding) before
it’s all over.”
That’s not to say that Virginia will neglect other possible
sources of funds.The revamping plan incorporates a goal
of raising $550million fromamixture of government and
foundation grants and private parties. Already, in fact, Virginia
has become something of a darling of the Lumina Foundation
for Education and the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation.
Several Virginia community colleges, for example, were
early participants in Lumina’s Achieving the Dreamprogram,
which funds efforts to use quantitative measurements to
improve student outcomes. After a hesitant start, Virginia
became one of the stellar performers in
the program.
JamieMerisotis, president of
Lumina, spoke at Virginia’s annual
retreat for community colleges this
summer, and told the gathering, “You
have reached a level that most of the
nation can rightly aspire to. What’s
happening here in Virginia is what
needs to happen nationally.”
Nonetheless, foundation grants
do not provide operating funds, and
the crushing budget declines—a 41
percent drop in per-student funding
over the past five years—have leftVirginia with the necessity
of pulling off what one administrator called “the hat trick”:
achieving dramaticallymore with less.
Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia
Community College, and the chairman of the planning team,
described the dollar dilemma this way: “If we merely tried to
achieve these goals by seekingmore state funding, we would
need an additional $300million.There are few prospects we
would get it. So we must increase productivity by an equivalent
amount.There’s really no choice. If we don’t, we begin to edge
towardmission failure.”
Following the old business school dictum that problems
are merely opportunities in disguise, Virginia has focused
its early attention on the sinkhole of all community colleges:
the unprepared student.These young people show up at
community colleges by the tens of thousands with few
academic skills, low self-confidence and dimprospects.
One Virginia study showed that only 16.4 percent of
students sent to developmental math classes ever manage
to pass a college-level math course. Overall, developmental
students graduate or transfer to four-year colleges at half the
rate of other students. Discouraged and defeated, the great
majority of themdrift away from college after a few semesters.
DuBois and the planning teamdecided that the old system
of assessing and handling unprepared students was such a
bust that they needed to throw it out and begin afresh.The
new systemwill divide students into three groups—liberal
arts, science and job training—that reflect the different course
requirements those students will encounter. Each group can
then be tested separately and assigned to its own remedial
courses.
Moreover, the new assessment tests will tease out students’
skills in various sub-categories, or “modules,” so a student who
passes, say, three modules and fails one will only need to take
amakeup course in that single module. If it works as planned,
the process should operate in amore customized fashion,
presumably producing higher success rates, while taking less
time.
“Not everyone is required to take the same level of math in
college, so why shouldn’t we have an assessment process that
reflects that?” asked Templin. “We looked all over the country
for a test that worked the way we wanted, and couldn’t find it.
So nowwe’re developing our own.”
David French, amath teacher at Tidewater Community
College in Chesapeake for 17 years, said the new approach has
created debate among his colleagues, with some fearing that the
module approach will divide math into disconnected segments
and erode the sense of continuity. But it is clear, he said, that the
old systemneeded to be changed.
“Under the old system, math teaching tended to be amile
wide and an inch deep because teachers did not have time to
linger,” said French. “And why on earth would a liberal arts
student need to know how to do long division of polynomials?”
When the new system cranks up in about 18months,
Templin and other college leaders will know fairly quickly
whether it has succeeded.That’s because the Virginia system
has adopted the “culture of evidence” engendered by its
Achieving the Dream experience over the last half decade.
“Without Achieving the Dream, Virginia would not be in
a re-engineeringmode today,” said Templin. “It started the
conversation about focusing on student success and on using
our data tomeasure the results.”
Among all the metrics used by Virginia, the most closely
watched are the “Student Success Snapshots,” issued regularly
fromRichmond, that give college-by-college results for
programs ranging from student retention to graduate job
placement.The idea was cross-pollinated fromFlorida where
“We must increase productivity,” says Robert
Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community
College. “If we don’t, we begin to edge toward
mission failure.”
Judging the performance
of community colleges
can be tricky, but the
traditional measurements
suggest Virginia’s 23
colleges could use some
improvement.
Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk