Coordinating State Policy for Completion

Published dec. 06, 2011

Only twenty-five out of one hundred students who take developmental education ever earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, a fact that is unlikely to change without more strategic use of state policy. Many community colleges are working to improve completion rates, but successful innovation typically happens in isolation. The lack of coordinated effort reflects that local, state, and national infrastructure for systemic improvement is not up to the challenge of graduating academically underprepared students. This is why the third component of the Developmental Education Initiative State Policy Strategy is policy supports.

Policy supports, admittedly, is a “catch all” term. In the Developmental Education Initiative, we broadly define this area of work as state-level policies that establish the necessary conditions for community colleges to redesign their approach to serving academically underprepared students. Focusing on policy supports can do three specific things to dramatically increase completion rates for developmental education students:

  • Facilitate the identification and removal of barriers to innovation
  • Secure new policies that make it easier to implement new models
  • Establish incentives to serve students that are academically underprepared

Remove Policy Barriers

Community college completion rates can be improved by a coordinated effort to identify policy barriers to developmental education innovation. The North Carolina Community College System, for example, implemented a listening tour of the system’s 58 colleges to identify policy barriers to innovation. Interestingly, it turns out that state policies did not constrain innovation as much as the colleges thought. Often, policy barriers that colleges thought were state-level were actually college-level policies or rules. Being clear on perceived and real barriers to innovation is critical to improving completion.

Secure New Policies

Sometimes new policies can clear the path to innovation. In Texas, for instance, until recently, community colleges were required to provide developmental education through semester-length courses. This requirement presented a barrier to colleges that wanted to implement interventions that were not course-based, such as open-entry/open-exit models, advising, or tutoring. New legislation changes that. A bill was passed that allows community colleges to submit non-course-based developmental education interventions for funding, allowing the colleges to design more nimble and targeted interventions.

Establish Incentives

Incentives can keep community colleges focused on serving students who are academically underprepared. Momentum points-type models, such as the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges’ Student Achievement Initiative, provide financial rewards to colleges that successfully move students to and through key milestones, including basic skills and developmental education. These performance-incentive models are worth watching. Preliminary results suggest that the process and consensus on desired outcomes is as important—maybe even more important—than the money.

Continuous Improvement

Ultimately, policy supports are about continuous improvement. Policy supports, properly leveraged, can assist colleges’ efforts to design newer, faster, and better ways to ensure that developmental education students get the support they need to earn credentials and degrees that provide family-supporting wages, and not only survive in today’s economy, but thrive.

Originally posted on Accelerating Achievement, the official blog of the Developmental Education Initiative.