Located in Paducah, Kentucky, a region with low educational achievement and significant industrial decline, West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC) has worked to draw first- generation students into college and make sure they succeed. Faculty and staff consistently track student learning and completion outcomes and use data to improve teaching and guidance practices. These efforts have resulted in an increase in student retention and degree completion.
Even before beginning their first class, many students arrive with significant struggles. They face economic challenges, juggle family and work, and life simply gets in the way of progress. WKCTC has sought to remove barriers students might have attending and remaining in college. In 2003, a One-Stop Center for student services was created. Now, new and returning students are able to enroll at the College, complete placement testing, meet with an advisor and a financial aid counselor, pay fees, and purchase books in a single location. Intensive advising has also reduced the number of students who are undecided about their career path by providing career counseling and ongoing regular contact.
The college believes selecting a career pathway is important to student success and puts an emphasis on obtaining credentials along the way. An example is selective admission into the nursing program. Rather than a student taking prerequisites and potentially never being admitted, it is now possible to use the courses toward a highly marketable associate degree in health science technology. Students receive credentials along course progression in such areas as phlebotomy or clinical laboratory technology.
It also became very clear that we needed to help students read better if they were going to succeed, not only at WKCTC, but also in the future. We instituted a Focus on Reading program that provided intensive faculty development in how to teach reading strategies in every course, regardless of student major. Faculty learning circles were formed across all departments allowing faculty to incorporate instructional strategies to boost students’ reading skills in the classroom.
Another area we focused on is financial support. Using a proactive approach, the staff in the financial aid office reaches out to all students to discuss budgets, project income from different careers, evaluate student loan interest rates, plan the aid packages, encourage work-study, and examine the long-term impact of decisions made today. These tactics help our students manage their finances and get the aid they need.
WKCTC faculty and staff also recognized that to have good student outcomes they must help K-12 students get ready for college. Building strong relationships with the College’s K-12 partners is part of our desire to see the college-going rate increase in western Kentucky and the need for remedial education decrease. In 2014, WKCTC’s high school dual credit program, known as the West Kentucky College Academy, received National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) accreditation. We sought accreditation as a way to assure courses taught in the high school had the same academic rigor as those taught on campus. More than simply a dual credit program, the West Kentucky College Academy employs a full-time director of K-12 partnerships who works collaboratively with high school personnel to guide high school students into meaningful college courses and create a career pathway while in high school.
While all of these programs and activities were critical to improving student success, one change had a huge impact on our work, and that was changing the culture of the college so that all faculty and staff aimed for high levels of success in all they do for their students. Instead of complaining about under-prepared new students, our educators chose to help students become what they believe good students should be. WKCTC chose to probe and review what it was doing through programs like Achieving the Dream and Gardner’s Foundations of Excellence; then acted to improve the college. When they realized that students were arriving at college underprepared and unable to read, they didn’t automatically blame it on the student and take years to discuss it. Faculty looked at best practices across the nation and came up with a plan of action suited to the needs of our students.
In 2014, IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data showed that 50% of WKCTC’s full-time students graduate or transfer within three years – a rate well above the national average. This graduation and transfer rate places WKCTC above the 90th percentile nationally. Of the students who transfer, about half complete their four-year degrees within six years of having entered the community college. In fact, WKCTC transfers perform better than other Kentucky students in their junior and senior years at area four-year colleges.
The remaking of a culture doesn’t come about by accident or overnight. It comes about by the careful and deliberate selection of people. It comes about by providing the necessary resources to promote the plan and by expecting college faculty and staff to participate fully. We invested heavily and began offering professional development focused on student learning outcomes in 2005. Faculty have assumed a collective responsibility for student success and use the knowledge gained from these activities to continually improve and refine their assessment instruments and processes to further enhance student learning.
Barbara Veazey is President of West Kentucky Community and Technical College