Two Community Colleges Receive National Award for Improvements in Student Success

During the opening plenary of the 15th anniversary DREAM convening in Long Beach, CA today, two colleges in the Achieving the Dream national Network were named 2019 Leah Meyer Austin Award winners. Amarillo College (TX) and Columbus State Community College (OH) were selected for showing measurable improvement in student outcomes driven by top-to-bottom cultural change in the institution.

“To be selected as a Leah Meyer Austin Award winner, a college must be courageous enough to make big changes in everything that impacts the ability of their students to be successful,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, President and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “Amarillo College and Columbus State College are strong examples of institutions that took bold action to align college-wide solutions that result in significant and sustainable institutional improvement.”

Amarillo College


Amarillo College (AC) served more than 10,000 students as of fall 2017, 71 percent of whom were first generation college-going students, 39 percent of whom received Pell grants, and 71 percent of whom attended part-time. Through a data summit for faculty and staff and student focus groups, the college learned that that poverty, not academics, was the most significant barrier to student success. Students’ concerns about adequate food, housing, transportation, childcare and mental healthcare were weighing them down and preventing greater academic progress.

Understanding their students’ experiences more clearly meant the college “had to come to terms with who [the students] really were, not who we thought they were, or wished they were” in President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart’s words.

The college responded by taking action across the board to address student poverty. It launched #ACcultureofcaring, embracing holistic systems change by integrating accelerated learning, predictive analytics and wraparound social services. The college redesigned developmental education and incorporated the courses into pathways and re-engineered many other courses from 16 weeks to eight weeks. Over the past six years, Amarillo College opened a counseling center, a legal aid clinic, a career and employment center, and a childcare center as well as the Advocacy and Resource Center, which uses analytics to drive its outreach to connect students with services provided by more than 60 local nonprofits.

Because of these and many other changes and innovations, Amarillo College has seen an uptick of 9 percentage points in its three-year graduation rate from 13 percent to 22 percent. The Black students’ graduation rate increased from 4 percent to 20 percent, Hispanic students from 15 percent to 22 percent and first-generation students from 12 percent to 21 percent. In fall 2018, 57 percent of students attended part-time compared to 75 percent in fall 2015. And nearly 90 percent of the students who were invited to visit the Advocacy and Resource Center came to the Center. Of those who received services, 69 percent returned in the spring while only 33 percent of those who did not receive services returned.

Dr. Lowery-Hart says, “What an incredible and gratifying honor this is. Our inclusion in the Achieving the Dream consortium in 2011 placed Amarillo College in elite company nationwide. Then in 2014, our College was named one of only 16 Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges. It was hard then to imagine that we could ever be more thrilled. But to be singled out today for the Leah Meyer Austin Award is an overwhelming and humbling badge of honor, especially because it comes from the very prestigious organization – Achieving the Dream – that helped us establish our Culture of Caring and the Poverty Initiative that is making such a dramatic difference in the lives of so many of our students.

“This absolutely reinforces our commitment to providing life-defining experiences for our students.”

Read about Amarillo College's accomplishments here.

Columbus State Community College

Columbus State Community College serves 46,000 students. Seventy-four percent attend part time and 64 percent are 24 years old or younger. The student population is 59 percent white, 19 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian. Of first-time, full-time beginning students, 47 percent receive Pell Grants as do 29 percent of the entire student population.

Columbus State’s transformative work reflects Achieving the Dream’s vision of community colleges as crucial, lifelong sources of civic and economic wellbeing for individuals, their families, and their communities. Previously, Columbus State Community College was a data-poor institution, according to President Dr. David Harrison. They were doing good work, he said, but lacked an integrated framework. They began to invest in data analysis systems and in 2012 made the crucial decision to join Achieving the Dream.

After gaining a better understanding of the needs of their students they created four student success priorities: closing equity gaps, increasing rates of course success, increasing student retention, and increasing program completion. Through increased data capacity they were able to meet more student needs by introducing 50 holistic student support interventions, all with evaluation plans and data about their outcomes available to all college employees. These interventions include application improvements, orientation processes, curriculum redesign, embedded advising, early alert, diversity awareness, student engagement and more. The interventions were created to make help “unavoidable” as students progress in their studies. A Student Central office was also created to provide enrollment, registration, and financial aid services to meet the needs of foster youth networks and low-income students. The college is seeking to align function, processes, and technology around the student experience rather than expecting students to adapt.

The data the college has gathered has allowed them to better understand the needs of underrepresented populations. They have honed practices needed to close equity gaps and achieve equitable outcomes by embedding completion advisors within program areas, offering college-readiness boot camps, designing new mathematics pathways, and introducing contextualized courses. The college also sponsors a year-long community dialogue called “Courageous Conversations” which highlights how race and ethnicity relate to topics such as education, healthcare, criminal justice, immigration and more.

Columbus State Community College has made significant gains in key metrics. Currently 97 percent of new students participate in one or more student success initiatives. Students involved in a minimum of three initiatives see course success rates above 70 percent.

The course success gap between Black students and White students has narrowed from 22 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2017. Furthermore, the college has seen the biggest gains in semester to semester retention among Black students who participate in three or more success initiatives. From Fall 2014 to Spring 2015 the retention rate was 68 percent for Black students and 83 percent for White students. Three years later the rates were 81 percent for Black students and 84 percent for White students. Since 2012 the college has seen a 12-fold increase in the total number of high school students participating in dual credit programs and a fivefold increase among underrepresented students.

“This honor recognizes the hard work of our faculty and staff. They have been on a years-long journey to meet students where they are and help them reach their goals,” said Columbus State President Dr. David Harrison. “The Achieving the Dream Network has been instrumental in providing the data discipline and best practices necessary to improve student outcomes. While our journey continues, this award is recognition of significant progress made by the Columbus State team.”

Read about Columbus State Community College's accomplishments here.

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