Achieving the Dream Helps Eliminate Student Achievement Gaps

CSN graduation is an inspiration

CSN graduation

By Nikiya Berry

President Barack Obama created the American Graduation Initiative in 2009 to increase community-college graduates by 2020 by five million, according to the White House website on higher education. The College of Southern Nevada is committed to do its part to reach this goal. To ensure success, CSN has adopted the program Achieving the Dream to identify student success pitfalls and come up with solutions to help students graduate.

“Let’s figure out what’s keeping students from crossing that finish line and then put in place reforms that will remove those barriers,” Obama stated in his July 2009 speech at Macomb Community College in Michigan. The first step is to identify why some students are not graduating successfully on time and then implement solutions for them to reach their goals, Obama continued.

Achieving the Dream is a non-profit non-governmental reform network started in 2004. It consists of nearly 200 colleges, 100 coaches and advisors and 15 state policy teams, according to the Achieving the Dream website. It focuses on eliminating student achievement gaps to increase community college completion rates at a faster pace.

CSN became a member of the Achieving the Dream program in the fall 2011 to contribute to the state and nationwide education efforts to ensure the nation succeeds in the 21st century.

There were 2171 graduates in the 2011-2012 school year, according to CSN’s Office of Institutional Research. James McCoy, CSN associate vice president of academic success, stated that by 2020 CSN needs to raise that number to 3800 graduates per year. That is a 75 percent increase.

To reach this important goal, CSN must analyze its current problem areas and fix them quickly in order to ensure student success with higher graduate rates.

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To do this, Achieving the Dream has a three-year process that CSN will follow.

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McCoy and CSN Director of Achieving the Dream Janice Glasper explained the steps.

The first year is the data collection phase. Student focus groups, surveys and other efforts are being conducted to capture important information. Getting feedback from students is an integral part of the program.

CSN recently completed the first step with approximately 18 focus groups consisting of 10 to 12 students each, according to McCoy, who met criteria to participate based on the obstacles they experience. The focus groups discussed roadblocks in their educations and what CSN can do to help them.

Another CSN effort to gather student data is CSN President Richards’ forums for academic success. These monthly forums offer a chance for higher administration to connect with students.

“Students should be aware that gone are the days where staff tries to figure out what they need,” McCoy said. “We want students to tell us what’s preventing them from doing well. They are the direct source. We encourage them to share their perspectives and we want them to know their messages are being heard.”

McCoy also encourages faculty and staff to find out what students are struggling with and direct them to appropriate solutions and resources, as they are the frontline.

CSN’s second step in Achieving the Dream, which starts fall 2013, is to evaluate the data found in step one. Specific interventions will be determined to help students with struggle points. Interventions such as policy changes or mandatory orientations will be implemented in the fall semester, according to McCoy and Glasper.

Glasper highlighted specific weaknesses that have been found so far at CSN–which are similar to other colleges– that keep students from continuing semester to semester. One issue is that CSN students do not complete developmental education, such as math and English, early in their degree programs. Often times this is the reason they do not graduate on time.

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“In order to rectify this problem, one proposal is requiring math placement testing before registering for classes the first time. Then, the student must complete all basic-level math before completing the first 30 credits of a degree program,” said Dean Wendy Weiner, school of arts and letters at CSN.

Glasper said some learners require a little more attention than others. It’s one thing for education to be equal by providing education to everyone, but is it also important for education to be tailored to every individual receiving it.

Achieving the Dream highlights some reasons why students don’t graduate. There are inadequate academic preparations for college, poor developmental education, issues with transferring credits, confusing financial-aid programs and a culture of enrollment rather than completion.

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Laura Yavitz, one of the CSN’s Achieving the Dream data team leaders who works for the Office of Institutional Research, said she had a good experience this year planning the first round of solutions.

“I have been impressed with the willingness of people across the college to get involved with the data and ask tough questions about where we all need to do better,” Yavitz said. “I have heard some really interesting discussions across departments and disciplines.”

Yavitz said the Achieving the Dream process has already started to change the conversation about student outcomes.

“It’s going to be really exciting next year to see how the initial interventions are implemented, and to start gathering data and asking questions for the next round of planning,” Yavitz said. “Hopefully next year, even more people will become interested and involved.”

CSN’s third, and last, step of Achieving the Dream will be to incorporate improvements to its educational system for all students. Once new programs are implemented, the College will evaluate the effectiveness.

“As you can see, this is creating pathways to success. We’re helping students navigate the system to earn a degree,” Weiner said.

“For the first time in U.S. history, the current generation of college-age Americans will be less educated than their parents’ generation, yet our workplaces require higher-level skills than ever before,” Achieving the Dream website stated. That is why CSN plans to continue avenues of eliminating achievement gaps long after the Achieving the Dream three-year process, Glasper said.

“If [students] are not completing their degrees, it’s not doing anyone any good,” McCoy said.

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