When Employment Is the Goal, Should ‘Student Success’ Include Dropouts?

Student Success

When Employment Is the Goal, Should ‘Student Success’ Include Dropouts?

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 9, 2017

When Employment Is the Goal, Should ‘Student Success’ Include Dropouts?

This article is part of the collection: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

If a student drops out of college to take a job they are training for, should that count as success or failure?

For many higher-ed officials, the answer is often no. Traditionally, an institution’s mission is to help students get a degree to show they have acquired knowledge and skills. Many colleges also have a financial incentive to keep completion rates high if they receive funding from the state based on enrollment and graduation performance.

But some colleges have a different perspective on the matter. At the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Community & Technical College, Associate Dean Kim Griffis says dropouts aren’t considered a failure, if the student has landed a job in the technical field they were training for.

“Numbers aren’t always it,” Griffis tells EdSurge. “Graduation rates are not the whole story.”

On and off ramps

To be clear, Griffs wants to see every student complete their program, whether that’s a certificate or an associate’s degree. She’s believes it’s a good, if not necessary safety net for students who leave their program for a job but may end up unemployed later on. However, a full degree isn’t always what students need to achieve their goals. “In some cases, and especially in technical fields, it’s about a skill set,” she says. “Sometimes students don’t have funding to continue a 2-year program, or [a few classes] was enough for them to get a promotion.”

Her definition of success began to change a few years ago after she says “students were disappearing” from the college’s Computer Information and Office Systems program. Noticing the dropouts, advisors reached out to the students and discovered many had left for a job in computer technical service. (Griffis says the college doens’t collect data around how many students this is the case for.) That realization inspired a program shift and revision of the curriculum.

“We started asking deeper questions, like ‘how did you get here and what are your goals?’” says Griffis. “Once we had a better idea, we had a sense that we would take them through a full program or select classes that would help them obtain the job they want.”

Several associate’s degree programs at the college have since split up their programs into credentials. For example, Griffis says the college broke up its Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees, which are intended to “provide applied or specialized studies that are used to satisfy a student’s specific educational needs,” from a single 60-unit program into two certificates programs that lead up to the AAS degree.

The idea is to provide an “on and off ramp,” Griffis says, where students are able to step away from their program—whether it’s for a job, financial reasons or something entirely different—and still come away with some level of certification to fall back on. And later, if they decide to return to college, students can stack the credential to complete the full degree.

Technical differences

UAA isn’t the only technical college to take that approach. At Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), academic advisor Cindy Kothbauer says programs such as accounting have also split up two-year associate’s degrees into a stackable program.

Now, the first year of the program leads to an accounting assistant certificate and the second year ends with a small business bookkeeping degree. “It makes it easy for students to step out and come back,” says Kothbauer, “and know years down the road they can get a degree so if they want to.”

While both colleges have seen value in the tiered structure, others at NWTC don’t agree with the notion that a dropout could be considered a success simply because someone got hired. Notable college dropouts, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for example, don’t represent what most students experience if they leave their program to work in a technical field.

“I don’t personally consider that success,” says John Grant, dean of student development at NWTC. “When we went through the recession in ‘08, we had a lot of students coming back to us who didn't complete their credential. When the market is good they leave, and if the market changes they come back for retraining. We want them to have that training no matter what happens in the economy.”

Griffis feels that if a student doesn’t return, it’s their decision and up to them to choose what’s their right path. Katie Trulley, an academic advisor at NWTC, believes there is an obligation that the college help students see why it’s important they do finish. “We want students to meet their [employment] goals, but it’s our job to help them see the bigger picture and ask questions, and present them with opportunities they might not have thought of.”

Different tools for different goals

Griffis remains pragmatic about students leaving their program, but notes that a credential often improves a person’s salary options. “We want a well-rounded person, but sometimes students just grab technical skills and get employment and that changes their life… Sometimes students will come in as non-degree seeking students.”

A challenge she sees is a lack in infrastructure to help students set personal goals, such as taking a class only to get a promotion, or leaving school to work in the field they were training for. There are different goals and needs, she adds, for technical colleges versus the traditional four-year path. “Our end goal is that we look at how to supply skilled workers for the state,” she says. “Can an institution adopt a definition of success that [recognizes] the student goal, not only graduation?”

The question is on the mind of advising tool developers, too. Within Starfish, a platform by software company Hobsons, advisors can flag students who are at risk of dropping out. Howard Bell, SVP of higher education student success at Hobsons, says his team offers ways to go beyond graduation as a metric of success.

One way to do this, he explains, is by creating personal “credentials” as milestones in a student’s experience. If they reach a promotion or certificate before completing their degree, that is one way to signify a goal has been reached.

“Goal attainment is not always a degree… some students come to take a single course for a promotion or an AA, but it’s just one stop,” he says. “That will force us all to be more precise about what a student’s goal is. It's a vision for our system to make sure [advisors] aren't just getting a student a credential, but tracking towards a goal.”

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