When the 55K partnership set a goal to increase postsecondary degrees in Louisville, everyone at the table realized they had a part in the effort to get us there. For higher ed institutions, that meant acknowledging that they weren’t retaining or graduating enough of the students they enrolled – and getting to the root of “why not.” The answers, of course, were complicated and would require an intentional approach.
That’s what Jefferson Community and Technical College has done. And the results, to date, are promising.
After years of restructuring to create a focused approach to student success, Jefferson has increased the percentage of its students who graduate with the degrees and credentials that will equip them for success in career and life. Since 2010, the number of associate’s degrees and certificates awarded annually has increased by an impressive 45 percent – from 2,945 to 4,267 in 2019.
“The old way of just hanging back and letting the best graduate isn’t the way the world works anymore,” says President Ty Handy, who came to Jefferson in January 2016.
To get people to graduate, he says, the school had to change how it operated.
The process: rigorous analysis, relentless focus
Increasing retention, degree and certificate attainment didn’t happen overnight, or even in a matter of a couple years. The efforts started in earnest in 2011, when then-President Tony Newberry engaged with Achieving the Dream, a national non-profit organization that works with community colleges to close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes. It was a rigorous self-examination that Newberry, in an interview with Louisville Business First, called “a deep dive into data and a series of interventions and restructuring focused on student completion.” By 2014, the numbers were starting to climb; that year, JCTC awarded a record 1,334 associate’s degrees, up 450 from 2010.
When President Ty Handy took the reins in 2016, he doubled down on student success initiatives. The school was hindered by low enrollment and a budget deficit. He slashed the budget, restructured staff and put focus on programs and processes that would drastically increase not only graduation and retention rates, but also the ability for the diverse student population to thrive while at school, and succeed once they leave. Among the initiatives:
Make the time spent at JCTC worthwhile.
One of Handy’s primary goals was making sure students were set up for career success. That meant creating pathways for students to earn marketable credentials while they’re working toward a degree. Community college students don’t always take a linear path to a degree, and many have to stop and start a few times before finishing their studies, Handy says. They may have full-time jobs, childcare issues, family problems or other situations that force them to suspend studies. But certificates don’t require as much time to complete. That’s important because it gives student the opportunity to secure higher-paying jobs before they finish their degree. So if a student ends up dropping out before earning an associate’s, they still have something to show for it.
“If something happens in life and they can’t finish their degree, at least they have this certificate they can fall back on,” Handy says. “We’re doing our best now, as part of student success, to get people marketable certifications along the path to graduation. That’s the big change. Our average student now is earning just under two certificates per graduate.”
Connect with employers for relevant experience.
The college has also engaged local and regional employers to create relevant experiential learning opportunities and apprenticeships for students. Partnerships in nursing and allied fields, growing partnerships in IT, and a strong relationship with advanced manufacturing employers via KY FAME have allowed students to earn wages and gain valuable, on-the-job experience while also working towards their degrees.
That has also helped with Jefferson’s ability to keep students in school. Fall-to-fall retention rates increased quickly from 44.1 percent in 2015 to 52.8 percent in 2019.
“You can’t graduate students if you can’t retain them,” Handy says. “We’re looking at ways to get students engaged in what they’re going to do (post-graduation) that keeps them motivated, so they aren’t just sitting there wondering what the field is going to be like and if they picked the right major. All of those things get in the way of whether or not (a student) hangs in there.”
Increase on-campus inclusion, equity and outreach.
Jefferson has also focused on under-represented minority students, which make up approximately one-third of the student body. In 2015, the 3-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time African American students was 5 percent. In 2019, the rate had risen to 15.8 percent. Handy says Jefferson prioritized creating a campus environment that made the student body – the most diverse of any college in Kentucky – feel welcome and supported. That included opening the school’s first multicultural center in 2017, a student union that provides a place for students to gather, study, talk and get tutoring services. The center is just one part of the Rise Together partnership between Jefferson and the 15,000 Degrees Initiative, to increase education support for African-American students from economically-challenged areas of Louisville. Rise Together pairs students from designated “Zones of Hope” neighborhoods in the cohort with an on-campus and community mentor to help with academic and non-academic challenges. In the first year, students in the program earned an average GPA of 2.74 while similar students had a 1.85 average GPA. While start-up funding for Rise Together was provided by the C.E.& S. Foundation, its success means that Jefferson is now sustaining it as a key student success strategy.
For all students, Jefferson is helping to remove non-academic barriers to persistence by bringing critical supports onto campus. Earlier this year, Jefferson debuted The HUB@Jefferson, an on-campus food pantry and resource center that connects students with resources for food, housing, healthcare, childcare and other basic needs. The school has also worked with neighboring Spalding University to provide mental health counseling at the downtown campus. Handy says a top need identified by students is help with mental health and stress. For years, the school would refer students to a downtown or East End medical complex for services but for myriad reasons – transportation, childcare, time constraints – many students wouldn’t end up going. With counseling services in a convenient, on-campus location, it’s easier for people to follow through on their referrals, Handy says.
“It’s all part of this community wrap-around support where we have to get the resources here for the students,” Handy says.
Revamping programs to address academic barriers
Getting students to be successful in college requires them to be prepared when they arrive at Jefferson and many were not. Students who were behind paid for remedial courses – sometimes two or three of these developmental classes – that didn’t count towards a degree. Nationally, data shows that students who take remedial courses are much less likely to persist to graduation. So Jefferson used national best practices and data to revamp remedial courses, meeting students where they are. Co-requisite courses were developed so that students could take the credit-earning courses at the same time they received intentional, intensive remedial instruction to get them caught up. The result? A pilot course at Jefferson in 2017 showed that students taking the co-requisite courses performed significantly better than those who were ready to take the gateway courses of math and English.
Handy and his team have also worked with public school systems to prepare students for college course work before they graduate high school. A current program with Jefferson County Public Schools identifies kids who are behind at their junior year, and provides them the college level remedial course that not only get them up to speed, but qualifies then to take a dual credit course in their senior year and/or enroll directly in the credit-bearing course once in college. In 2019, 600 JCPS students were enrolled in the program, Handy said, and the expectation is that number may grow to over 1,000 in the next two years.
So, what can we take away from Jefferson’s example? With intentional focus on student success, continual efforts, based on sound data, can have great impact on graduation and retention rates. It starts with rigorous institutional self-examination and honesty about what needs to change. That analysis started under President Newberry when Achieving the Dream forced Jefferson to have those courageous conversations. When President Handy arrived in 2016, he had the data in front of him to determine a course and set strategies to increase student success and address the glaring gap in racial equity.
Jefferson has taken great steps to improve its cultural competency, training its faculty and staff on race and inclusion, and the different needs for students facing poverty. The school is paying attention to the structural barriers that might exist due to poverty and race. To date, the intentional focus on student success means more students from more diverse racial and economic backgrounds are graduating with marketable degrees and certificates. That’s a win for the school, for the students, and for Louisville.