A Working Model for Student Success: The Tennessee Technology Centers

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1 A Working Model for Student Success: The Tennessee Technology Centers Draft This report was commissioned by Complete College America as a description of a postsecondary educational institution that is designed to help students complete a credential quickly and enter high skill careers and employment. COMPLETE COLLEGE AMERICA 1250 H Street NW, Suite 700 Washington, DC (202) Attaining a postsecondary credential, a degree or certificate, is increasingly needed for success in the US economy. New jobs in this economy often require postsecondary training or a credential; more employers now look for some evidence of education beyond high school even for entry level positions. The 1150 public community colleges in the United States assume a critical role in providing access to these jobs to young people and adults who need professional and technical skills in order to start, renew, or advance a career. While community colleges offer many opportunities, the same institutions are failing to adequately serve very large numbers of students who want and need a college education. Too many who enter a community college will never complete a degree or certificate and those who do complete will take an average of five years to complete what is offered as a two-year associate s degree. Community colleges across the nation show alarmingly low rates of completion and student success. Community colleges face an enormous challenge in meeting the need for more people with credentials and increasing the rate at which students are successful. This necessarily means adopting new practices in the operations and structures that remove barriers and encourage success. Structural barriers to completion and success, embedded deeply in the organization of community colleges, limit capacity to educate a workforce and limit the ability of individuals to obtain a credentials they must have to reap benefits long associated with educational attainment. Many initiatives around student completion are underway. Addressing these challenges means that educators and policy makers need models and practices of education that offer potential for significant achievement at significant scale by institutions and postsecondary systems. This report describes a postsecondary education system that, for decades, has maintained completion rates far in excess of similar rates for community colleges, even while many of its students have very low household incomes and low skills. It offers a model of educational structure and practices that do support completion at a significant scale.

2 Our report describes the Tennessee Technology Centers a statewide system of 27 institutions providing a wide range of rigorous, one to two year, technical/occupational education programs at consistently high completion and placement rates in high skill and relatively high wage employment. We describe how the Centers are organized, how they operate, and how they are able to achieve completion rates far higher than their counterparts among community colleges in Tennessee and around the nation. We identify four important components of the system that supports completion and student success. For twenty-five years, since its transition from a vocational training program of the K-12 system to a postsecondary system serving adults, the Tennessee Technology Centers have trained and education largely poor adult residents of Tennessee enabling them to enter high skill and high wage jobs ranging from computer information technology, to practical nursing, and to precision machining. What makes the Centers unique and important are the very high statewide completion and placement rates for graduates. For the system as a whole in 2009, the completion rate among the 9,000 enrolled students eligible to complete was 75% and the systemwide placement rate for those obtaining employment in their field of training was 83%. While completion and placement varies somewhat between each of the 27 centers, the range is generally between 75% and 90% for completions and between 75% and 95% for placement in a field related to the student s area of study. By contrast, the comparable completion rate, using IPEDS data, in Tennessee s 13 community colleges was 11%. No other state system of postsecondary education at this level achieves these results and does so with a population that is of such low income. While we do not propose that the Tennessee Technology Center tradition and organization should be adopted as solutions to the challenges facing community college, there are important observations to be made and lessons to be learned from the operations of the Centers and how the Centers are organized to successfully pursue their mission. The Tennessee Technology Centers: A Statewide System for technical education. Governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents the 27 Technology Centers are a component of Tennessee s system of postsecondary education. Centers operate across the state, distributed to be accessible to low-income people, and provide occupational and technical education in a dozen to twenty program options ranging from welding to practical nursing. Centers are each generally modest sized. Only eight of the centers have an FTE enrollment of greater than 500; the smallest Centers, in rural areas, have as few as 200 FTE and the largest in urban areas have an FTE enrollment of over 1,000. Each center is accredited by the Council on Occupational Education as a clock hour institution, meaning that programs are measured in the overall estimated amount of time a student will spend in a whole program. Centers are accredited to award diplomas and ii

3 certificates for program completions and not degrees. In 2008, the Centers made 6,762 completion awards and 4,700 of these were diplomas. These students enter employment at wages and salaries that are generally above entry levels for their fields. The Centers programs offer students an intensive educational experience, being in a class for a large part of the day, and, in addition, the total number of hours spent in a program can total far more direct contact hours focused on a technical subject than would be experienced in an Associates degree program in a community college. Attending a Center program is roughly the equivalent of holding a full-time job going to school; fulltime students attend approximately 30 hours per week, five days per week, or 432 hours in each trimester. Centers operate year round and full-time students attend programs between 6 and 22 months depending on the total estimated clock hours for the specific program. The Centers offer low-cost tuition to students; tuition for each trimester of 432 hours is $800 and a majority of program tuitions are approximately $2,400 for three trimesters (12 months) with additional expenses for labs, books and materials. Tuition varies by program length and can be as high as $4,000 for some five-trimester diploma programs and as low as about $1,200 for certificate programs of less than two trimesters. Seventy percent of the Center s students come from households with annual income of less than $24,000 per year and 45% report household income of less than $12,000 annually. Most students enrolling in full-time and part-time programs qualify for federal Pell Grants. In addition, over 70% of students attending the Centers qualify for Tennessee s Wilder-Naifeh Student Scholarships whose source is the state s lottery receipts. In 2008, about 11,400 students in the Centers received a Wilder-Naifeh Scholarship of up to $2,000 per year. At some Centers upwards of 90% of students receive the Wilder-Naifeh Scholarship and over 70% qualify for Pell Grants. Taken together scholarships and federal aid can often completely cover the basic costs of attendance including some costs related to attendance such as travel and childcare. This means the State of Tennessee is sustaining a commitment to offer virtually tuition-free postsecondary occupational and technical education to its poorest residents. Design for Completion: Four elements of the Technology Center approach to education. Our analysis identified four elements of a highly integrated educational delivery system that helps account for high levels of completion and student success. Program structure: Momentum toward completion. Students enroll in complete programs at the Centers that includes all content and a fixed schedule of attendance; there are no separate courses or schedule variables to cause confusion over what courses to take or how to set up a schedule. Programs are defined by learning and occupational objectives. Because of the open-entry/open-exit and competency based program organization and because of the program intensity, faculty and students have a great deal of contact and faculty are very engaged in managing and tracking student progress iii

4 through the competencies. All this leads to a highly supported learning experience in which the goals shared by both faculty and students-- are completing the program and job placement. Competency-Based Tradition: Applied Education and Learning. The Centers use competency-based curricula, blending theory and applied learning around identified competencies that are needed to demonstrate knowledge and to be successful in an occupation. Competencies are supported by extensive use of industry developed standards and assessment tools. Learning is self-paced and allows students to spend variable amounts of time to master competencies. The lynchpin to the competency-based structure is the capacity of the faculty to clearly define and communicate the expectations and to manage the progress of each individual toward the competencies. Technology Foundations: Universal, Integrated Development Education. The Centers do not offer developmental or remedial education courses. Almost every student entering the Center takes Technology Foundations, a self-paced, largely computer-based curricula of basic and intermediate skills that is contextualized to a student s chosen program of study. Students begin Technology Foundations just after they start their technical program and work in Technology Foundations labs at their own pace until they master the learning objectives of the Foundations. Technology Foundations is based on a KeyTrain/WorkKeys platform and curricula aligned with Center programs. Student Services: Embedded Case Management and institutional accountability. The Centers student services can be understood as an embedded case management system. The faculty, staff and administration maintain a network of information and communication surrounding nearly every student. Personnel as a group are responsible for organizing and providing student services; this is reinforced through practices of holding faculty and personnel accountable for completion and placement. This communication network is integrated within the students educational programs through the sustained and intensive contact between faculty including Technology Foundation faculty--and students. These relationships, in turn, allow the Centers as a whole to closely observe students throughout the course of their program. Finally, the Centers focus on direct services specifically tailored to an individual student need that will help achieve the goals of program retention, completion, and placement. Learning from the Tennessee Technology Centers. The Tennessee Centers offer practices and organizational features in four areas program structure, competency-based education, integrated developmental education through Technology Foundations, and a virtual case management system for student services that sharply pose alternatives to what many have identified as institutional barriers to completion and attainment in postsecondary education. iv

5 The high success rates for students and longevity of the TTC system all argue strongly that there is important learning here. The Technology Centers are examples of working models of postsecondary education that produce success for significant numbers of students at a significant rate. Translating these elements and putting these lessons into practice in other systems offers an exciting challenge and opportunity to policymakers and educators across the community college systems in this country. The following are important lessons from our analysis of the Tennessee Technology Centers: Program Structure: The kinds of completion and placement outcomes obtained by the Centers flow from an organization whose core operational principles and practices are designed to produce completion and placement in the labor force. An implication of this for educational reform is that educators must address the core operations and core organization of postsecondary institutions around alignment with completion and employment goals. The reason for high rates of completion and placement and the ability of the Centers to sustain these rates over a long period of time is that the core operating procedures and practices are organized around those outcomes. By core operational practices we mean the ways in which students enter, receive education, and learn within a postsecondary setting. In the Centers, the program structure and competency based model defines the core operational practices; and these tend to determine how other elements of the educational program support those practices and support the students. Some of these can be summarized in observations that the Centers: focus on the whole learning experience and goals of competency and placement and not on the cumulative credits of a series of courses; take responsibility for defining a complete educational program and set of competencies that students need in order to be successful; sustain continuity in the student experience not only through clearly defined programs but also through sustained engagement of faculty and instruction; integrate all learning components required to complete an credential into a single educational path; distribute the responsibility for program completion and placement with faculty and staff. Competency Based Program Design: In the Centers, the competency based model works well for students and the Centers organize faculty and staff to work effectively within a competency based framework: v

6 Community college occupational and technical education programs could explore integrating and adapting key elements of a competency based model and the seamlessness of a clock hour structure into their existing technical degree programs. Adaptation of this model would involve something akin to reverse engineering existing AS and AAS associates degrees in technical fields to arrive at competency based structures that would meet degree requirements and meet accreditation requirements for some technical fields. A blended credit-hour/competency-based model is possible, for example, in the redesign of programs to unambiguously identify the complete sequence of courses a student would take to complete a degree. Specifying a sequence for a degree gives faculty a chance to identify the specific skills needed by industry within a particular field and then to define how the program of courses represents competencies in those areas. Some community college systems are now adopting this more structured approach in occupational and technical degree programs in career pathway models. Integrated Developmental Education: The center s model of integrated Technology Foundations for developmental education is highly effective and is very different than conventional developmental education practices. This suggests that educators and college leaders should think more boldly about redefining the ways developmental education is offered to students in community colleges. The failure of large numbers of students to navigate and complete a developmental education sequence discourages thousands of potential students from entering and completing college programs. Every available indication in our study suggests that the Technology Foundations curricula and delivery methods offered by the Centers do give students the basic skills competencies needed in their technical programs and in the workplace. Three important features of the Center s Technology Foundations are self-paced mastery through computer-based curricula, integration with the technical programs and its nearly universal application to all students. Self-paced mastery allows customization to the needs of each student and is flexible with regards to pacing and how quickly the student can achieve competencies. Integrating basic skills learning as a component of a technical program increases its relevancy to the students, is additive to the educational program, and is consistent with the motivation for the student coming to school in the first place. vi

7 Treating Technology Foundations as a co-requisite for all programs removes the stigma from some students as being unprepared for postsecondary studies. Integrating developmental education more fully into academic programs is a challenge to educators but certainly not insurmountable. Given the fact that the proportion of applicants to community colleges referred into developmental education is as high as 80 percent, it would not be a great leap to make a new form of developmental education simply part of every student s educational program. Moreover, many community colleges now allow students to enter introductory program-level courses prior to completing a developmental education sequence. Again, it would not be a steep hurdle to integrate developmental education competencies in parallel and supportive with academic programs. Embedded Case Management of Student Services: The organization of the Center s programs and intensive contact between students and Center personnel build strong relationships among students and Center personnel; these relationships help the Centers closely follow students and supply student services that are highly focused on the needs of individual students and their persistence and completion. This suggests that student services can become more efficient and highly focused on completion when there is better communication and accountability around student success within the educational institution itself. The organization of the Center s programs and student services allows student services to be very targeted toward helping students stay in their programs and complete a certificate or diploma. For example, because both program content and schedule are fixed for all center programs, there is no need for most conventional advising functions (course selection or scheduling) in the student service office. Instead, student service personnel target issues of individual students that may threaten their ability to stay in school such as personal or financial problems. Conclusion: There is much to learn from the Tennessee Technology Centers about the organization and delivery of occupational and technical education. We have observed that the Centers characteristics are highly integrated and form a cohesive approach to educational delivery. Additional research and analyses of these features would be useful to explore their effectiveness deeply and how they contribute to student success. But we should not overlook a simple, but very central, lesson from the Technology Centers: providing high quality education and organizing educational delivery and program structure to support student completion and success in the labor market can lead to those outcomes. The Centers achieve these outcomes with a population of students who are very often very low-income and who have not fared well in other educational settings. This is a very important lesson in the discussion of reform in community colleges. vii

8 Acknowledgements: The case study report, data gathering, and on-site interviews were conducted by John Hoops, PhD, for Complete College America. The report has benefited from careful reading and comments by James King, Chelle Travis, and Carol Puryear of the Tennessee Technology Centers. In addition we would like to thank Elaine Baker and Brian Bosworth for their reviews of earlier drafts of this report. viii

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