What does Washington state have to teach White House policy leaders about higher education?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Three Washington community college presidents — Amy Morrison Goings of Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Jean Hernandez of Edmonds Community College and Chris Bailey of Lower Columbia College in Longview — went to Washington, D.C., last week to be part of a White House summit on community colleges.
Here is what Morrison Goings had to say about what happened at the meeting (some comments have been edited for space and clarity):
Q: This was your second visit to the White House this year. What were the meetings about?
A: The first meeting, in January, was the College Opportunity Summit, and at that meeting the president and first lady — as well as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — spoke about how to increase the numbers of low-income students moving into higher education. The focus was best practices and ideas about how to move more low-income students into private, selective institutions. We were one of a few community colleges represented out of about 100 institutions.
The White House staff heard loud and clear the we are not going to solve this nation’s challenges of moving more low-income youth into higher education without the community colleges being front and center. We educate 40 percent of our nation’s low-income youth at 1,200 two-year colleges, so we’ve got to be part of the solution.
The purpose of the (August) meeting was to really begin to drill down on a couple of areas of concern. The first is how different institutions are focusing on persistence and completion, primarily through use of technology — “big data,” if you will, and innovative practices like intrusive advising — being more proactive in helping students identify their progress, figure out barriers, much more of a hands-on model.
Then we heard from different colleges and different states about how they are working through this barrier of pre-college or remedial math. There are two sides: traditional-aged students, coming out of high school — which is really a matter of proper communication with K-12. Here in Washington state, we’re not perfect, but a lot of work is being done between the two-year college system and the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction.
Then there are non-traditional students, those adult learners who are coming to us in our 30s. They’ve been out of high school for a decade, and they really have a different set of needs. Remedial education is not bad for them, but we’re challenged to move them through pre-college math and English courses more quickly while they’re taking college-level career training courses, for example, and also making sure the academics are relevant to careers they’re going into.
Q: Why did Washington community colleges capture the attention of the Obama administration?
A: The reason we’ve been invited back twice is I-BEST, the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training. We’re seeing very promising results, with completion rates of over 70 percent.
The big announcement (during the event) was the funding of a collaborative partnership between Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and the research group MDRC (a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization). The Department of Education is funding both qualitative and quantitative studies in a couple of different areas. One: defining developmental education, because it’s a term that’s being used very loosely across the country.
The second area: How effective and accurate the two-year college placement tests are. Some colleges have Compass, some have Accuplacer (the names of standardized test brands). There’s a lot of debate nationally about the effectiveness of these pre-college placement tests, and whether they hold students back.
Q: Does Lake Washington use a pre-college placement test?
A. Yes. We’re using Compass tests now. But one of our commitments is also to look at alternatives to assess student performance.
The third area is to look at longer-term study on the effectiveness of an effort in Texas, where they’re using a math pathways approach.
The research and the national discussions are very helpful to us as community college leaders. We can make decisions based on better data, which is important in an era of lean resources, and increased expectations and accountability on behalf of students, parents and taxpayers. We were really pleased to once again be invited — honored, in fact. I think it speaks to the commitment our faculty has to students and to thinking outside the box when it comes to developmental education.