By J.D. Rottweiler, Ph.D.
Cochise College is developing and rolling out a number of initiatives aimed at improving critical educational and workforce statistics. These statistics, identified in the Expect More Arizona Education Progress Meter, measure educational attainment, post-secondary enrollment, and opportunity youth (individuals age 16 to 24 not in school or employed) across the state and Cochise County. For the economic health of our communities, we need at least 60 percent of county residents age 25 to 64 to have obtained a post-secondary degree, certificate, or workplace credential. In order to accomplish this, we need more degree/credential completion, higher post-secondary enrollment rates by high school graduates, and fewer youth who are neither employed nor in school.
A guaranteed scholarship for high school graduates is now part of the Cochise College recruitment process, along with college navigators who will be embedded in local high schools, directing students to future educational opportunities at Cochise or elsewhere. If we are successful in increasing the percentage of Cochise County high school seniors enrolling immediately in post-secondary academic and training programs, it’s likely many students may choose to come to Cochise. If so, we need to be better prepared to effectively help them earn a post-secondary credential.
The college has been implementing student success strategies aimed at increasing college completion. To accelerate our activities, we recently joined Complete College America (CCA), a national nonprofit that works to eliminate achievement gaps by providing equity of opportunity for all students to complete college degrees and credentials of purpose and value. CCA promotes research-based initiatives, what it terms, “game changers” to enhance economic and social well-being through educational opportunities. These game changers are: Math Pathways, 15 to Finish, Proactive Advising with Structured Degree Plans, Momentum Year, Co-Requisite Support for Academically Underprepared Students, and A Better Deal for Returning Adults.
The Math Department has already done significant curriculum work to ensure that the math courses students are placed into match what is necessary for their chosen program of study. In other words, the college now directs students to math courses best designed for their educational goals. Students in non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs are directed to take Survey of College Math, which covers algebra, trigonometry, precalculus and statistics but doesn’t require a student to be an expert at all of those. For students in programs like electronics, automotive technology, construction trades, welding, and other career/technical fields, math may be embedded directly into the program. STEM students, however, need an entire semester of College Algebra, as it prepares them for more advanced math courses they will need to further their studies. Better aligning which math course(s) to take to desired degree outcomes is sure to help students overcome this all-too-frequent barrier to degree completion.
This last fall, faculty and staff began having conversations about 15 to Finish. This initiative encourages a mindset that completing 30 credits per year is essential to completing an associate’s degree in two years. The college is working to pare degree offerings to 60 credits, where possible. While 12 credits per semester may be considered full time according to federal financial aid standards, taking that extra class each semester can help full-time students avoid an extra semester of college. The “just one more” conversation can also occur with part-time students. Research shows the quicker a student accumulates credits, the more likely they are to complete their degrees, begin their profession, and start earning money. The college is considering ways to provide incentives for students to take just one more class.
In addition, college advisors and counselors are transitioning from a transactional approach to one that builds relationships with students. We look to assign students to a specific advisor and to have most interactions occur via scheduled appointments. We are exploring how to allocate resources toward advising; if current staff were assigned to specific students, the ratio would be about 1,000 to 1. This initiative also entails structured degree plans so students can efficiently work their way through programs in a timely manner. Along with that, the college hopes to develop an early alert system so advisors can monitor student progress and intervene at relevant times.
In building stronger relationships with students and promoting completion of 15 credits per semester, we will encourage students to take at least two classes within their major, as well as their gateway English and math courses, during the first year of college. This Momentum Year initiative will help students stay on task, complete gateway courses in a timely manner, and move them to degree completion.
Sometimes, remediation is required to help students succeed in gateway courses. Through a co-requisite support initiative, students who previously would have been directed into pre-college-level coursework may instead be enrolled in college-level English and math courses and also provided with extra academic support in order to complete those courses. We have not yet determined exactly how this will look, but the idea is that an additional lab or extra tutoring services could provide just-in-time assistance for students who need it.
Finally, Cochise serves many students who are returning to school as adults. Often, these students are also juggling family and work responsibilities, making completion a challenge. Something the college is considering is identifying and promoting specific programs in a structure that is accelerated and scheduled in a manner that makes success easier to achieve. Overall, the college would like to get to the point where it can forecast course needs based on student plans, and that will help us work toward predictable scheduling for all students.
Cochise is learning from other institutions that are part of the Complete College America alliance, and we are intentionally implementing the changes that make sense for us. Student success and completion require sustainable solutions, and it will take us some time to identify the right mix of services and resources in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Ultimately, our goal is to positively impact the educational attainment rate in Cochise County, and it will take all of us pulling in the same direction to do it.
J.D. Rottweiler is president of Cochise College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.