The Completion Agenda: Double by 2020

Dr. Terry O’Banion may be the world’s leading expert on The Completion Agenda, the topic of his speech today at the Student Success Summit. This post is a reflection on a talk he gave at the California Community College Student Success Summit in Sacramento.

What is the Completion Agenda? The mission is to double the number of students who achieve a certificate, an associate’s degree or transfer to a 4-year college or university…by 2020. This is a focused agenda. Two times the number of students completing…this is a nationwide effort. This agenda recognizes that the United States is not creating enough well-educated people to sustain society and enter the job market. President Obama says we need 5,000,000 community college grads by 2020. The Lumina Foundation and the Gates Foundation are driving monetary sources behind this initiative. The League for Community College Innovation agrees.

Everyone agrees we need 50%, but some think we need 60%. Double by 2020, though, is easy to remember. 40 states have signed on to this agenda. Most California Community Colleges have individually signed on to this agenda. This has never happened in the community colleges before. It immediately strikes me that the difficulty is that half our students arrive (statewide) without the basic skills to attend college.

We used to be first in the world in educating students; we are now 26th in terms of graduating and educating our young. For the first time in our history, the current generation of college-age Americans will be less educated than their parents’ generation This is a radical shift in American culture; upward mobility is compromised.

14% of CC students do not complete a single credit in their first term. Almost 50% drop out by the second year. 60% need remediation nation-wide. 33% of the students who are told they should do remedial students never enroll.

The Community Colleges cannot continue to do things as they’ve done in the past. California has some specific challenges. Less than 30% of the students are college-ready. Only 53.6% will get a degree. Only 41% will transfer. This record is not particularly impressive to the public. The Student Success Task Force has stated that we really need to refocus our use of resources to lead to success, for our students, and to create more degrees and transfers. Here are some suggestions:

Strengthen support for entering students (First Year Experience (FYE); more contact between counseling and students; instructional involvement in student support and success)

Give students incentives to succeed (this one is interesting, right?)

Here’s a list of things colleges have thought might be “magic” practices:

Learning Communities (all by themselves, this has a high measure of success)
Project-based Learning
Student Success Courses
Early College High School; Dual enrollment
More engagement (Service Learning; Contextual Instruction; Supplemental Instruction)

Just doing lots of things, all mixed up like a dog’s breakfast, doesn’t necessarily work. Colleges have to have some way of producing evidence that the success rates are changing (to put it bluntly: fewer drop-outs). Each one of the practices above, by themselves, are not strongly effective. Piecemeal reform does not seem to work; boutique programs that work for 50 or 100 students aren’t enough. Each little piece of these “magic practices” makes many fragments. Faculty are often fragmented and interested in their own particular thing, their silo or island of innovation. There are plenty of innovators in the colleges, but it’s often single individuals whose practices live and die through their individual involvement. The artificial silos work, historically, to get resources for particular faculty, but they are not transformative to the college as whole. Each group that champions its own practice creates its own silo.

Transformative change will take much more collaboration. The “magic practices” should not disappear, but there needs to be overall coordination and collaboration that takes people out of their silos.

Adjuncts, administrators and classified staff need to be involved as well.

Here are some guidelines from O’Banion’s work:

1. Every student will make a significant connection with another person at the college as soon as possible. (This is what students say: a particular counselor or faculty advisor or another student or a secretary…knows my name…that’s the most important factor to many students).

So, even the police should be friendly. Info booths should be staffed by people
who are willing to ask people’s names. Instructors should greet students at the door
of the classroom. I know, I heard this one and I thought about it. This is supposed to
lead to students valuing what we do. They need personal connection. I’m guessing
that a lot of us born in the 40’s-70’s didn’t need this as much. We had it back in our
neighborhoods, where kids still played outside.

2. Key intact programs (orientation, assessments, advisement, placement) must be integrated and mandatory. One stop shopping is key. Services need to be in one place. To the new generation of students, being sent somewhere else to do something is being given the run around. Of course, the students have no clue what words like “registration” or “matriculation” or “assessment” mean. We have to teach them.

I get this one. We should change our language (and have better signs and remember that
everyone on campus is an educator). Students do not do optional; I’m hearing lots of
people at this Summit talk about how students simply are not permitted to enroll in
classes if they haven’t assessed and done all the rest of this. I don’t know how they
worked this out, policy-wise.

We need to assess “non-cognitive” factors. Motivation, drive & grit need to be
assessed, says Dr. O’Banion. Is the student one who really wants to succeed no
matter what? A highly motivated student should be admitted even if their academic
achievement isn’t high. Chafee College is one of the best in this area. They use
Gallup type polls, one is called the “Hope Scale” to assess students. They also use
a “Mindset Scale” to get a handle on what’s inside the student’s head, motivation-wise.

Educational Testing Service is on board with this. They have a new community college
program called the Success Navigator. Costs $10 and is online. This program provides for early warning and academic alert.

3. Every student is in a “Program of Study” from day one; students without majors will be in a mandatory program of study designed to help them decide. This is basically declaring a major. Those who were placed in a program of study in the first year were twice as likely to complete. A sample program of study for the undecided: A student success course, a writing course and a psych course (or substitute a career exploration course for one of those). Just allowing them to wander around in the curriculum is a way to insure they fail.

4. Every enrolled student will work with college personnel to create a Pathway – a Roadmap. This is different from Program of Study (Major). The courses for the major are part of this Roadmap, but this is broader. These are individual educational plans.

Gates Foundation Version: Connection > Entry (Gatekeeper Courses) > Progress >

Places with success at this: Indian River, Mt. San Antonio, Miami-Dade, Valencia College

This provides a framework for the college’s strategic plan.

5. Every student will be carefully monitored throughout the first term and the college will make immediate interventions to keep students on track (+20% for retention for Early Alert). It really does mean EARLY. The idea of a midterm is way too late. It needs to be first week. Second week. Lots of monitoring is needed. At Oxnard College, it would be really nice if we knew who the first year students are (I always used to ask for a show of hands in the on-the-ground classroom). D2L provides a really helpful flagging tool that a prof can open right in the smart classroom to show who the students are (could be more useful, but it is what it is). If a student isn’t participating or is shown to be at risk in the first week or two, they are referred to a coach/counselor. We are all going to have to use systems like this if we want students to succeed.

6. Students will engage in courses and experiences designed to broaden and deepen their learning.

I know there are courses at Oxnard College that would be great for the FYE, and which
could be included in any student pathway. Building and teaching a course like this
should be a goal for many faculty, and when they have shown they have good retention
and success for first semester students, their courses should indicated on the Pathway.

If the “Completion Agenda” becomes all out about “training workers” it will fail. The
old goal of broadening the horizons of students is still something we should all focus
on. We need to remember, as educators, that deep learning is key to future success
and to students remaining with us. We aren’t just training workers. We want all our
workers to be broadly educated.

Employers actually want employees who can think, and many tell us to produce
students with a “liberal education.” Narrowing some of the choices down to those
classes that are best able to do this would be good. O’Banion suggests a host of
“101” classes that engage students in problem solving, critical thinking, data analysis.
education regarding citizenship in a democracy, etc.

Dr. O’Banion says the future of the community college depends on transforming ourselves. We cannot simply turn out skill-enabled students; we must turn out holistically educated students, which of course, will also lead to them staying with their goals until completion.

To order “Access, Success, and Completion: A Primer for Community College Faculty, Administrators, Staff and Trustees” go to or call 480-705-8200 ext. 200


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