Jan 062012

By Teri Walker–

Northland Pioneer College’s (NPC) president is making major capital investment plans in the coming year to accommodate industrial growth anticipated along Interstate 40 near Holbrook, and is also working to redefine what success means for a community college.

While discussing her plans for 2012, Dr. Jeanne Swarthout said a major project for the college is clearing the path to build a skills center in Holbrook that would house the new construction trades program NPC will be rolling out in the coming year.

Swarthout said early estimates put the project at about $3 million to $4 million, and she expects the facility would be about 20,000 square feet.

“The potash mining that’s coming along the I-40 corridor presents a really good opportunity for this area,” said Swarthout.

The construction trades program is being developed in partnership with the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) program and will offer a full range of courses related to construction skills, including electrical, heavy machinery operation and maintenance, and others. NPC’s welding facility, which is currently housed on the former Holbrook NPC campus, would be relocated to the new skills center. NPC has an agreement with the city to vacate the former campus by 2016.

Eventually, the college will develop mining-related courses in cooperation with the mine developers that will be operating in the area. Those courses will also be housed in the new skills center.

Swarthout is engaging faculty in the planning and development of the center. Faculty will interact with architects and engineers to design a facility that will best meet the college’s intent for the construction trades program.

NPC also has plans to build a skills center in Show Low.

“The Show Low center is a little ways off; we need to do the Holbrook one first,” said Swarthout.

Swarthout secured permission from the college district’s governing board last month to begin preparation of a design plan and cost estimates for the project.

In addition to the skills center, Swarthout has a couple of other major undertakings planned for 2012, which she will be introducing at the Jan. 16 convocation kicking off the spring semester.

First is a pilot program the college is undertaking with two area high schools to more closely align college and high school math and English curricula.

“There’s a common problem across the country in community colleges, where we’re seeing kids do great in their high school math and English classes, but what they learned in high school doesn’t align with the college courses, so they’re not succeeding,” said Swarthout.

NPC is piloting a program with Holbrook and Blue Ridge high schools, bringing superintendents and principals together with NPC staff to discuss what students need to be learning in math and English to better prepare them for college-level courses.

“Students pass AIMS, then get to college and waste a lot of time in prep classes when they thought they were ready for college math or English. The lost time goes against their Pell Grants and scholarships, so students get frustrated and walk away,” she said of the problem.

Swarthout is looking for a drop in the number of developmental courses, such as pre-algebra and basic writing and reading that students require at college, as an indicator of the pilot program’s success. She’s also looking for an increase in students simply finishing courses, moving from one semester to the next without taking breaks, and completing their stated goals and decreasing the time it takes to get to their goals–whether it be a certificate, a degree, or a single course completion–as indicators of success.

Swarthout said, “We’ll take a couple of years to see where we’re making a difference and then roll the program out further.”

Her third major initiative for the year is closely tied to the goals of the pilot program–to achieve greater retention, persistence and completion among NPC students.

Swarthout wants to make a cultural shift from educators considering the number of full-time students enrolled in a college as an indicator of success, and instead mark success based on the number of students meeting their stated education goals.

There’s a change in how people are using community colleges, she explained. Students may be seeking just a couple of courses that will provide them with promotion potential in their current job; a certificate showing they’ve taken courses to learn a specific skill; a single course not tied to a larger education goal; a degree; or, pre-requisites for a degree program that will be completed at a four-year university.

“Only considering whether a student is full-time is outdated,” said Swarthout.

She wants faculty and the governing board to consider other factors in evaluating student success, primarily keeping students enrolled, and working toward completing their education goals in a streamlined timeframe, without having to take extended breaks from enrollment for financial or other reasons.

This will require NPC to work on many fronts: streamlining the financial aid process and improving students’ abilities to secure financial aid that’s suitable for individual circumstances; requiring students to establish stated goals for their education; and having mandatory interaction with counselors to ensure the students’ course selection and planning will get them to those goals.

NPC will institute an intent system to capture students’ goals, which will get students to identify their intent when registering: Do they intend to take just one course? Secure a certificate or a degree?

If the college knows the student’s intent, it can better measure success. Did the students complete the course, the certificate or degree within the timeframe they had hoped to do so? If not, why? And how can the college better help students along the path to success?

These are the questions Swarthout wants to be able to answer, she says, pointing out that this approach spreads accountability for student success beyond the faculty in the classroom and into college administration, as well.

“If you increase your quality of service and support for students, inevitably you will have more success,” said Swarthout.

She noted that the traditional funding model for colleges–funding based on the number of full-time students enrolled–has been changing for some time, and funding from the state, which has reduced drastically in recent years, is unpredictable. So, rather than focusing on trying to juggle student enrollment numbers and categories to meet shifting funding criteria, the college is pulling back and simply focusing on providing the best possible service to its students in the hopes it will result in more students sticking with their education goals and continuing enrollment at the college.

“Right now, community colleges across the country get bashed for completion rates,” said Swarthout, pointing out that if completion means a degree, then rates will never look good.

“Because that’s not why a lot of people are there. Community college students’ intent for their education doesn’t apply to a four-year model,” said Swarthout; meaning, again, many community college students aren’t seeking a degree, so considering completion rates that only measure the number of degrees achieved is an unfair metric.

“It is a cultural change because community colleges in this state have always been focused on increasing full-time student enrollment,” said Swarthout.

She has been working with the other community colleges in the state to agree to a new vision of success in Arizona, a vision where student intent is what matters.

In her role as the chairperson of the Arizona Community College Presidents’ Council, Swarthout worked closely with the other nine community college presidents in the state to develop a long-term strategic vision related to what constitutes success in community colleges and shifting toward an intent-based evaluation system.

“It was a really difficult process, but we did it,” said Swarthout.

The state’s community college presidents are implementing the new philosophy, and are hoping the cultural shift will happen at the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) and in college systems across the country.

Swarthout isn’t content, though, to wait for the cultural change to happen in the education world before making changes at NPC.

“Changes are happening at ADE, but I don’t think it’s moving to the community colleges fast enough,” she said.

So, on Jan. 16, when she meets with college staff and faculty to rev them up for the new semester, she’ll unveil the next steps in moving toward an intent-based system. Later this month she’ll meet with Blue Ridge and Holbrook high school leaders to get the math and English pilot program rolling. And she will keep working at the state level to keep education leaders focused on what really constitutes success.