Performance Measurement Reporting System / Spring 2019: Student Success & Completion Report

Massachusetts Community College Students Starting Stronger; State University Graduation Rates Rising Steadily

Equity Gaps Remain: Despite Marked Improvement in Key Trends, Too Many Students Still Left Behind

June 2, 2019 / 12 Min. Read

Introduction: What’s At Stake

Brainpower is Massachusetts’ calling card in global markets. The Commonwealth depends on a steady, reliable supply of high-skilled college graduates to work in industries that drive economic development, including biotechnology, health care and finance. College graduates, in turn, bring a host of benefits to their communities by spending more as consumers, paying higher taxes and making important civic contributions.

To supply the Commonwealth’s knowledge-based workforce, particularly during a period of demographic shifts that are producing enrollment declines, Massachusetts public colleges and universities must employ new strategies to ensure that a greater percentage of students who enroll in their institutions ultimately achieve college success. Integral to those strategies must be a focus on increasing postsecondary enrollment and success for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.

On the positive side, the Department of Higher Education’s new Performance Measurement Reporting System (PMRS) shows that, for the past several years, overall success and completion rates have been on the rise at Massachusetts community colleges and state universities. At the same time, persistent gaps in student access and achievement between different racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups have remained entrenched. To address these disparities, the Board of Higher Education in December 2018 adopted equity as the top performance and policy priority for Massachusetts public higher education.

The Board’s specific embrace of the equity agenda bodes well for continuing improvement in performance outcomes, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, Ph.D., President of Complete College America (CCA). “States that are seeing the needle move in terms of college completion have a specific focus on equity and are committed to equitable outcomes for all students,” Spiva observed. “They have done the hard work of disaggregating data and identifying where barriers to success exist for specific populations, and they are implementing reforms that specifically address these barriers through a top-down, bottom-up approach that drives smart policy while empowering institutional leaders to lead efforts on their campuses.”

Community Colleges: “Momentum Metrics” Trending Upward

What the Data Show

The state’s 15 community colleges are seeing significant improvement in “momentum metrics” which measure two specific signs of first-year progress: students’ completion of “gateway” math and English courses and on-time credit accumulation. In the last five years, the rate at which full-time, first-year students complete gateway courses has increased by nine percentage points. Similarly, the rate at which community college students accumulate credits to graduate in a timelier fashion—12 credits per year for part-time students, 24 credits for full-time students—increased seven percentage points.

Figure 01

Increases in First-Year Progress Rates: Gateway Course Completion and Credit Accumulation

Average Rate among Community Colleges

Figure 1 contains two graphs on the average first-year progress rates among community colleges. The left graph shows the increase in rates for timely completion of gateway courses between 2008 and 2017. There was minimal improvement from 2008 to 2012, when the rates dropped to 19%. Since 2012, there has been a steady growth of 9% points. The right graph shows the increase in rates for on-time credit accumulation between 2009 and 2018. With minimal changes until 2012, since then, there has been a steady increase of 7% points until 2018, except for a slight plateau between 2016 and 2017.
Note: Actual rates may be higher, so emphasis should be placed on change in rate—more than rate itself—at this time

Massasoit Community College leads its community college peers in the percentage of students completing gateway English and math courses in their first year, and the rate is steadily increasing. Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Barbara W. McCarthy reflects on best practices and persistent challenges at Massasoit:

Focused on Access: “We have tripled our early college offering in the past three years and this growth is continuing under a reorganized Early College Access department, which is expanding the success of our Gateway to College program…We are also increasing our response to non-academic barriers such as the cost of textbooks and food and housing insecurity. In the past two years we have saved Massasoit students more than a million dollars by adopting Open Educational Resources.

Curriculum Integration: In both math and English Composition, developmental courses are housed in the math and English departments and faculty are expected to teach the continuum of the curriculum. Both departments have a history of collaboration and shared efforts to improve delivery of gateway courses and student success.

Math Pathways Aligned with Student Majors: “In the math curriculum there has been a strong understanding that one approach does not meet the varying needs of students and their programs. Our success is based in the variety of pathways: STEM, statistics, and self-paced modules.”

“Students who hit these early benchmarks are more likely to persist and be successful in earning a degree or credential of value,” said CCA’s Spiva. “The focus on ensuring that students who enroll in Massachusetts community colleges not only take the right courses, but the right number of courses in their first year is a clear indicator that more students will persist toward on-time graduation and avoid accumulating excess credits and additional debt.”

Campuses React

“Our trend line for completion of gateway courses in the first year is great,” said David Leavitt, Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Bunker Hill Community College, the largest community college in the state. “When we look at the trend analyses, we went from 9% in 2012 to 32% in 2017. That’s up over 250% in five years! But are we happy with 32% of students completing English and math in the first year? No, we still have more work to do.”

“The data help me see what we still have to explore,” Leavitt continues. “For example, why the gap between White and Latinx students on timely accumulation of credits is so much wider than the gap between these same groups when we look at the rate at which they are completing gateway courses.”

North Shore Community College leads the community college segment with 36% of first-time, degree-seeking students who are earning enough credits to complete degrees on time. For Karen Hynick, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Jermaine Williams, Vice President of Student Affairs, the campus buzzword is “redesign.” Both credit the college’s extensive work to redesign courses, create math pathways aligned with degree programs, overhaul the advising system, and invest in professional development to improve cultural competencies as key factors contributing to the college’s recent successes.

“We spent the last two years developing a two-year schedule,” said Hynick. “The information for students is now consistent on when classes are offered, what sequence and, depending on their major, how we help them transfer as juniors without a loss of credit.” Hynick noted that North Shore’s work to redesign math courses and embrace multiple placement measures has led to a 28% increase in the number of students placing into credit-bearing courses.

Additionally, the college has upgraded its advising system. It now pairs students with faculty advisors in their majors, a change that allows for stronger connections between students and faculty members who are more familiar with specific program requirements. “We’re reaching out to students based on advising now, not just registration,” said Vice President Williams. “We’re also helping students stay on track by taking a hard look at ‘real life priorities’— housing, hunger, childcare—and restructuring institutional resources so that we can address whatever economic issues they’re facing in a short time.”

Looking Ahead: Anticipating Improvement in Long-Term Student Success

The Performance Measurement Reporting System models its Six-Year Student Success Rate after the Voluntary Framework for Accountability (VFA) for measuring success at community colleges. This composite metric looks at how many students graduated, transferred, attained at least 30 credits, or remained at their college six years after they enrolled. The trend on this rate has been flat, hovering at around 65% for the community colleges for the past five years. But if the research holds true and increases in first-year momentum rates do lead to increases in long-term success rates, the latter should increase beginning in 2019 and continue to rise at least through 2023.

Figure 02

Six-Year Comprehensive Student Success (VFA Model)

Average Rate among Community Colleges

Figure 2 shows the average Six-Year Student Success Rates at community colleges between 2012 and 2017, modeled after the Voluntary Framework for Accountability (VFA) for measuring success at community colleges.
Note: If the research holds true, success rates should start to increase in 2019, continuing through 2023

Much of the progress on the momentum metrics is associated with the propagation of related evidence-based practices, many of which have been funded by the Department’s Performance Incentive Fund (PIF). These include:

President Christina Royal’s goal for her campus was to “utilize data more frequently to support and inform decision-making.”  Her recipe for institutional change:

The Power of ‘UnLearning’: “The biggest barrier to people accepting new information is that they can’t let go of the old (inaccurate or outdated information). And if they can’t let go of old information, it’s very difficult for them to process new information, especially if it creates cognitive dissonance with their current/old beliefs. In order to help staff accept new realities and updated perspectives based on data, we needed to start with helping them question outdated assumptions.”

Transforming the Culture: Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says that great organizations are willing to confront brutal facts... I set an expectation for the strategic planning steering committee that we had to be brutally honest about the state of our institution if we are to rise to greatness and make an even greater impact on our community. I delivered straight, with no chaser.”

Raising the Bar: “The college has consistently made progress in decreasing the percentage of the overall population of HCC students enrolled in at least one developmental class, from 31% in Fall 2014 to 21% in Fall 2018. That decrease translates into an increase in the proportion of students enrolled in college-level coursework. We anticipate that the number of students completing college-level English and math will increase to 50% by AY2021.”

  1. Early college and dual enrollment programs to help high school students earn college credit and prepare for the rigors of post-secondary coursework
  2. A major overhaul of developmental (remedial) coursework to increase the rate at which students gain access to and complete “gateway” courses
  3. Development of a seamless transfer system from community colleges to state university and UMass campuses, featuring degree maps to guide students through timely completion of their programs of study
  4. Cost-cutting initiatives to assist students through greater use of Open Educational Resources (OER) and increased financial aid (MASSGrant/ MASSGrant PlusCommonwealth Commitment)

“We have learned a lot as a state and nation about how to increase the ability of students, especially those from traditionally underserved backgrounds, to succeed,” said Chris Gabrieli, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. “So it is very gratifying to see our community colleges tackling what we believe to be the key gateways to success in students' first year.” 

State Universities: Outpacing National Peers on Graduation Rates

What the Data Show

Overall progress is also visible within the Massachusetts state universities, where six-year graduation rates for first-time students have increased by an average of seven percentage points in the past five years. In addition, all state universities are now on par with or leading their respective national peers.

Figure 03

Six-Year First-Time Student Graduation Rate

Average Rate among State Universities

Figure 3 shows the steady increase in six-year graduation rates for fist time students at state universities between 2007 and 2017, with a growth of 7% points since 2012.

Campuses React

“We’ve adopted best practices in the field to foster student success,” said Salem State University’s Provost and Academic Vice President David Silva. “One of the most powerful things we do is ’15 to Graduate’,” an initiative that uses a combination of advising, communication and policy strategies to encourage students to enroll for 15 credits per semester, every semester, to stay on track to graduate within four years.

Silva also lists a centralized student case management system, intrusive advising and the hiring of graduate students as “retention fellows” among Salem’s success strategies. “We have also tried to impress upon everybody in our community that student success is everyone’s job,” Silva explained. “You must create a network of interrelated and mutually reinforcing activities and initiatives that direct and engage students so that they can be led down the path toward success. So there’s no silver bullet, no ‘one and done’ approach.”

Since 2004, Bridgewater State University has been very focused on improving its graduation rate, particularly the rate of students graduating within four years. Senior Associate Provost and Chief Data Officer Michael Young credits the development of four-year degree plans for the improvement in Bridgewater’s graduation rate. “Our degree audits allow students to know where they are in the process, and our departments have set up courses to be sequenced with enough sections available so that students can complete degrees in a timelier fashion,” Young said.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy ranks #1 against national peers with 75% of its first-time students graduating within six years. Westfield State University has the highest graduation rate among non-specialty institutions in the state university sector. MMA President Francis MacDonald and Westfield State Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Diane T. Prusank agree that a rock-solid first-year experience sets students on a path toward completion.

“We have a cadet-run training and retention program in our academic and writing resource centers with upper-class students. They know when the chem mid-term is,” says President MacDonald. “We also require homework hours of our first-year students every weeknight in their rooms or in the library,  or they wind up working extra duty. We know that many of our students have not been taught to study. We also know that if we can get them to the first day of their sophomore year in good academic standing, they are going to graduate.”

While some of Mass Maritime’s successful approaches are attributable to its traditional, regimented academy model, Westfield State is helping students build on-campus relationships and learn to access academic supports.

“The research is clear: the more connections (you have) on campus, the more likely you are to finish. We’re going to build on that in our new Westfield Experience program for first-year students next fall. Every section will have what we’re calling a ’Go-2,’” explains Provost Prusank. “Volunteer staff will partner with faculty teaching first-year students. We’ll say, ‘I’m your Go-2 to get connected to resources.’ Or, ‘I’d like to take five of you to lunch.’ This is our way of deepening our connection between academic affairs and student affairs which we think has contributed to our strong graduation rates.”

Sabrina Gentlewarrior, Bridgewater’s Vice President for Student Success and Diversity, says the university has also invested in Signal Vine, a mass texting platform that prompts students with a series of reminders on important deadlines for financial aid, add/drop periods, and midterm schedules, as well as prompts to engage students with the platform. “At the end of the fall semester we asked students to ‘describe your semester in one word,’” said Gentlewarrior. “This allowed us to offer general support to those that shared positive descriptors, as well as reach out individually to students who texted back words indicated that they needed more in-depth support.”

Action Needed: Equity Gaps Leave Too Many Students Behind

What the Data Show

The most pressing challenge for both community colleges and state universities is the need to close persistent opportunity and achievement gaps that are tracked by race, socioeconomic status and gender.

At both the community colleges and state universities, some metrics reveal progress for all racial/ethnic subgroups but no narrowing of gaps between white students and students of color, while others show worsening patterns with respect to both gaps and outcomes for students of color. The DHE will continue to monitor these trends to ensure new interventions and redesign efforts serve as a mechanism to improve success rates for students of color and not only white students.

Figure 04

Community College Student Success Metrics: Gaps by Race/Ethnicity

Average Rates among Community Colleges

Figure 4 contains four graphs on community college success metrics, showing the gaps between White, African-American, and Latinx students. From left to right, the graphs show the rates for 1) Timely completion of Gateway Courses, 2) On-Time Credit Accumulation, 3) First-Year Retention, and 4) Six-Year Student Success (VFA Model).
Figure 05

State University Student Success Metrics: Gaps by Race/Ethnicity

Average Rate among State Universities

Figure 5 contains four graphs on state university success metrics, showing the gaps between White, African-American, and Latinx students. From left to right, the graphs show the rates for 1) Timely completion of Gateway Courses, 2) On-Time Credit Accumulation, 3) First-Year Retention, and 4) First-Year Student Graduation.

“I think we need to be very clear about our goals here, which are both attainment and equity,” said Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education. “What we want is for success rates to go up while gaps are closing. The only way to achieve that is to do both things simultaneously and to intentionally focus on underserved students, particularly Latinx and African American students, to ensure that those who are most disadvantaged are the first to be put on the pathway to success.”

Campuses React

Since 2017, DHE has provided PIF funding to Bunker Hill Community College to establish and expand a Center for Cultural Wealth and Equity, which promotes an asset-based approach to equity that truly values the strengths and diversity of the campus community. The Center was formed after a decade of foundational work in analyzing disaggregated data on student performance, listening to students' perspectives on their learning environment, and forming partnerships with core partners like the Museum of African-American History and the UMass Boston Gastón Institute. “While we could all agree that we needed to improve our ability to support all students and value the assets and strengths they brought campus,” explained Liya Escalera, Dean of Behavioral & Social Sciences and Global Learning, “we also recognized that higher education has a long history of marginalizing underrepresented students, and in order to make progress toward the learning environment we knew would support student success, we would need to invest in a deep focus on equity and cultural wealth over time.”

Looking Ahead

FY2020 will be a busy year as DHE works with the community colleges, state universities and University of Massachusetts to develop a systemwide strategic framework to achieve equity. The equity lens has also been woven into the call for FY2020 PIF grant proposals. “We challenged our campuses to develop innovative programs and initiatives that adopt the equity lens, promote asset-based approaches to curricular and co-curricular programming, and honor the skills and lived experiences of our students,” explained Patricia Marshall, DHE’s Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Student Success.

Commissioner Santiago also advocates a focus on professional development for DHE and campus staff, to identify unintended biases and other roadblocks to progress on the BHE equity agenda. “Our student body is changing, but campus staff are not trained, in many instances, to deal with diverse populations,” said Commissioner Santiago. “We need high-level leadership development. It’s expensive but it’s critically important, and we are going to seek philanthropic support for this work.”

As a new digital resource, the Performance Measurement Reporting System will be enhanced and updated in response to changing dynamics and feedback. Working closely with key stakeholders, DHE is using a “continuous improvement” model to make changes, such as refinement of peer groups and improved data collection to better align with innovative campus practices such as multiple math pathways.

Another important next step will be setting performance goals at the campus, segment and/or system level for each metric so that future progress can be tracked against those goals:

  • BHE “Gateway Course” Goals. In March 2019, the Board set goals for timely completion of gateway courses - for 50% of community college students and 75% of state university students to complete gateway math and English courses before completing a total of 24 credits.  These goals will take effect during the 2019-20 academic year.
  • New Goals on Equity. A new strategic framework to advance the BHE’s equity agenda is now being built. It will incorporate performance goals to be set by June 2020.
  • Other Success & Completion Goals. Stakeholders will be convened during the 2019-20 academic years to set goals on On-Time Credit Accumulation, Retention, and Student Success/Graduation, with the expectation that these will go into effect the following year.

A foundation for positive change, he believes, was laid with the multi-year efforts to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and state universities, especially the collaborative work on MassTransfer. “The community college connection is critical because two-thirds of the students in our public system attend these institutions, and this is where you see the greatest diversity,” Santiago said. “We have a lot to learn from the community colleges’ work to educate our most disenfranchised students. I believe it will be the student-ready colleges, not those who are serving only college-ready students, that will survive the next shakeout of higher education.”