New National Initiative Designed to Ramp Up Graduation Rates

New National Initiative Designed to Ramp Up Graduation Rates
President Obama has ambitious goals of graduating five more million students from community colleges by the close of this decade. Can our country do it? A new initiative called Completion by Design says, yes we can!

President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to graduate an additional 5 million community college students by 2020. To achieve this end, the President has raised the level of awareness about the benefits of community colleges and issued grants and other funding to raise enrollment levels across the country. However, getting more students into college is only the first part of the battle.

Low Completion Rates a National Problem

Graduation rates for community colleges are currently dismal at best, with less than one-quarter who enroll in a college graduating from a degree or certificate program within three years, according to a report at the Houston Chronicle. That figure varies throughout the country, with some states seeing even lower numbers in their graduation rates. For example, Texas faces s a community college graduation rate of just 12 percent within three years, although that number goes up to 30 percent within six years. Still, if community colleges are to truly raise up a workforce that can compete in the global economy, they must do much better than the status quo.

The worst numbers appear to come from low-income students, who enter community college in an effort to bring themselves to a higher earning level. However, the majority of these students never complete their degree or certificate program, which reduces their chances of a decent-paying job or transfer to a four-year institution. In a community college summit last fall, President Obama told the Christian Science Monitor, "In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate's degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require college. We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without community colleges."

Introducing "Completion by Design"

To increase graduation rates, provide a more qualified global workforce and help more Americans make a decent living to support their families, the "Completion by Design" movement was created. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this initiative was developed to significantly increase graduation rates for at-risk community college students under the age of 26, including minority students and those from low-income families. According to the organization's website, the goal of "Completion by Design" is to give college students the support they need to earn their degrees or certifications to land the jobs they want.

The "Completion by Design" project has been funded with a $34.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The money is currently getting distributed to community colleges throughout the country that have displayed innovative programs for improving graduation rates. The winners of the grant have been selected in a number of states, including Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

Three Phases Going into Motion

The "Completion by Design" initiative consists of three distinct phases, all of which are created to increase completion rates in community colleges through a variety of innovative programs. The phases include:

Phase One

This phase includes a one-year planning period that allows community colleges a chance to analyze their current structure and find ways to adjust their system to make graduation a more plausible goal for many of their students.

Phase Two

Also known as the implementation period, Phase Two will be used to implement the programs created during the planning phase. This portion of the initiative is designed to last two to three years.

Phase Three

The final phase of the project will be focused on national policy changes that will help to build completion rates at community colleges across the country.

Texas Schools Onboard the Initiative

Alamo Colleges and Lone Star College are two of the community college systems in Texas to get grant money for improving graduation rates on their campuses. According to a report at the San Antonio Business Journal, the planning phase of the process was completed at Alamo Colleges in April of this year, and the implementation phase has already begun. Lone Star College will also become a part of the initiative, with ideas like requiring students to declare a major upon enrollment to the school to encourage commitment to the process.

"We really see higher education as…a way to end the cycle of poverty," Suzanne Walsh, senior program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the Houston Chronicle. In Texas, community colleges chosen by the foundation serve one-third of all the community college students in the state.

North Carolina Getting Funding from Initiative

Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina recently celebrated their award of a portion of the "Completion by Design" funding as well. GTCC President Dr. Donald Cameron said in the Jamestown News, "It's an exciting day, not only for the participating institutions but for the state of North Carolina. We're going to demonstrate in the next couple of years that we have developed strategies and initiatives that will truly make a difference."

Dr. Cameron added, "If we are to succeed in the global economy, we need a continuing supply of qualified employees at all levels of the educational scale – from certificates, to diplomas to degrees."

The money from the "Completion by Design" grant will specifically target those points in the college process when students are most likely to drop out of school. These points, according to the organization website, include the application process to community college, enrollment and placement into college courses, student progression to 75 percent completion and finally, graduation. By addressing these specific points along the way with innovative programs and additional student support, the hope is that completion rates for community colleges will continue to rise until the country meets President Obama's goal in 2020.

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