The myth of student success

bcstats-1As March rolls around, many Bellevue College students are hard at work on their transfer applications. According to research done by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, abbreviated SBCTC, 1,468 BC students transferred to a public four-year college or university by the end of 2012. In fact, more students transfer to baccalaureate institutions from BC than from any other community or technical college in Washington state. Despite this, graduation and transfer rates do not give a comprehensive look at the success of BC students.

For example, BC served a total of 35,198 last year, according to the SBCTC 2011-2012 Academic Year Report. If student success was based purely upon transfer rates, then only 4% of BC students would have been deemed successful. According to Vice President of the Office of Instruction Thomas Nielson, the question of student success is a question that is better answered individually from student to student.

“You can think about all the folks you’ve met in your classes and that you see around campus,” said Nielson. “How many of those people do you think are first time, full time? Many of our students are coming back [to school] either because they did some college and are coming back or because they are now changing careers, and many, many people don’t go full-time…Many of them transfer without earning the DTA…They may change their minds and go in a different direction…A lot of students don’t come here for a credential. They might need 3 classes to apply to med school. I’m not excusing what looks like a very poor graduation rate, I’m saying that there’s a lot that goes into it.”

In 2012, there were 9,988 degree-seeking students enrolled at BC, which makes up less than half of total enrollment. While these students consider success to be getting their degree or certificate, other students will define their level of success very differently. Students from public universities enrolled at BC to take classes not offered at their institution may view success as the acquisition of credits they need, while a student at BC for personal enrichment might view success as learning a new skill.

While this question is a complicated one, BC’s sociology department has been working to find the key to student success. At BC, success in a class is either a C or a C-minus grade, depending on the requirement of the class. To be considered successful, students must not only complete the class, but achieve a grade that satisfies a graduation requirement or prerequisite requirement. The sociology department has been collecting data from instructors indicating the numbers of students receiving each letter grade, which they proceed to analyze. According to Nielson, departments such as the Office of Equity and Pluralism and the Office of Instruction are now able to pinpoint more directly where students pass and fail. This includes which classes students tend to struggle in as well as which classes are a challenge to different student populations. Nielson and Lori Saffin, a sociology department faculty member, hope to use this information to close achievement gaps between students in different cultural and socioeconomic groups.

“This is not news that there have been gaps, but what it takes to address it is for faculty to do what they’re now doing,” said Nielson. “Because it’s the faculty in classes that can make those changes and make a difference.” Nielson said that these “changes” involved potential changes to outcomes and teaching strategies, professional development training, hiring more diverse faculty which represents BC’s student body and providing workshops for adjunct professors.

There are also many groups on campus which provide support for students, particularly those in historically marginalized groups, such as the TRiO program and the Comprehensive Success Initiative, which both serve marginalized student populations. Transitions teams also exist in the Office of Instruction to help remove barriers for students. “The people who meet together to do that are looking through barriers of student success and barriers to students advancing through. Why is it that students stop coming? Is it a financial aid thing? Is it a situation in a class? Is it that they didn’t have a good plan and they didn’t meet the prerequisites so now is it advising that’s needed?”

These achievement gaps are not unique to BC. “Every school has different statistics than ours,” said Nielson, “but most schools are struggling with something in this area.” The SBCTC has been examining student achievement on the state level since 2007, when they launched the Student Achievement Initiative. The SAI is a funding initiative for all the community and technical college in Washington which aims to “both improve public accountability by more accurately describing what students achieve from enrolling in our colleges each year, and to provide incentives through financial rewards to colleges for increasing the levels of achievement attained by their students”, according to the SBCTC 2011-2012 Academic Year Report. Colleges are given “points” based on different achievement benchmarks such as students completing their first 15 or 30 credits, students meeting basic skills requirements and students earning degrees or certificates. As of 2012, there has been a 46% increase in total number of course completions achieved since the program was started in the 2006-2007 academic year, and the SBCTC hopes that this indicates a larger amount of student momentum towards meeting their goals.

Despite every effort from BC or from Washington state, the college still cannot control every factor that provides an obstacle for students. Nielson said: “We know that students who are first time to college, students who are from lower socioeconomic status groups, students that are marginalized in some way or another, all of this adds up to more barriers and more impediments. It takes more personal energy to overcome those things that are stacked against students. We’re trying to do that institutionally. [The college] is huge. It’s difficult. It’s wrapped around culture and all kinds of things. So it’s really deep analysis that has to be done.”