Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Walla Walla Wows World

I was raised on Dr. Seuss.  Sometimes it shows.

I’ve enjoyed the name “Walla Walla” since childhood.  When I lived in New Jersey, I ran across a convenience store called “Wawa.”   (There’s a town in North Jersey called Mahwah.  I don’t know if there’s a Mahwah Wawa, but there should be.)  The Princeton Wawa was located near a shuttle train the locals called the Dinky.  Educated adults would say “you catch the Dinky by the Wawa.”  (I am not making this up.)  Putting all of those together, if we imagined Wawa expanding westward, and a shuttle train popping up in the right location, we could have the Walla Walla Wawa Dinky.  

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t say Walla Walla Wawa Dinky without smiling.  Try it.

So I was primed to see this piece from the Seattle Times about Walla Walla Community College, and the measures it has taken to improve its success rates.  (You can’t go wrong with an article about student success that quotes “completion coach Max Weber.”)  While some of WWCC’s measures are unique to its region -- such as viniculture, which is not a historic strength of Massachusetts -- some of it is useful elsewhere.

The completion coach idea, for instance, seems ripe for the picking.  Completion coaches, of which the aforementioned Mr. Weber was one, spend their time tracking down students who left the college just a few credits shy of graduation.  They encourage/cajole/recruit the students to come back and finish.  (As the article puts it, “they divide up the names and then go on the hunt.”)  When it works, the student benefits by replacing a collection of various credits with an actual degree and some sort of plan to move forward, and the college benefits by both higher enrollment and a higher graduation rate.

The methods of the completion coach sound more like something you’d see in the for-profit sector, but in this case, the coach is using her powers for good.

WWCC also constructs incredibly prescriptive course sequences for each student, with the goal of preventing students from putting off their most challenging subjects -- usually math -- until the end.  

I’ve seen all sorts of responses to student fears of math.  Colleges that let students put it off frequently find students dropping out late in the sequence, mostly because math didn’t get any easier through procrastination.  Colleges that force students to focus exclusively on remedial math and English in the beginning avoid that problem, but create another one.  Students often resent having to take classes that don’t “count,” and many don’t enjoy jumping right into their weakest subjects.  It brings back memories of difficult high school experiences.  As a result, colleges that force long slogs through remediation before getting to the good stuff tend to see high attrition in the early semesters.

The most promising approach I’ve seen, which is consistent with Walla Walla’s, involves a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Arrange courses so that students take at least one class in their interest area while they’re simultaneously taking the “eat your vegetables” classes.  Ideally, link the courses so that students see some of the same faces across classes.  

We’ve experimented with that over the past few years, linking sections of developmental math to Intro to Health Careers.  The students who have gone through that model tend to pass the math class at higher rates than others, mostly because they pull each other through.  They see the point, since they have the Health Careers class, and they have a cohort at their disposal.  

A model like that is a logistical challenge, but the early results are encouraging.  

Of course, WWCC also does some of the basics, such as mandatory orientation and very early career advising.  We’ve started those, too.  The trick with mandatory orientation is deciding what, exactly, “mandatory” means.  If they don’t show up, then what?  If you don’t have an answer for that -- and students will ask -- then it’s not really mandatory.  The first time we actually enforced it, we all had our fingers crossed.  But it worked, and now it’s just part of what we do.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve found that students who know that officially withdrawing from a class is actually an option are less likely to just walk away.  

Congratulations, WWCC, on a well-deserved Aspen Prize.  Thanks for sharing your tips.  And sorry about the wordplay.  As a grown man and card-carrying academic administrator, I don’t get to use phrases like “Walla Walla Wawa Dinky” very often.  The opportunity was just too good to ignore.