Montgomery County Community College: Deep Commitment to Data


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Montgomery County Community College has long been a national leader in data-informed student success initiatives. Beginning their work with Achieving the Dream, the college has evolved into a community that has adopted a courageous culture of inquiry-based decision-making. The White House recently commended their progress in student retention and completion in a published report presented at December’s Presidential Summit.

Deep Commitment to Data, Research & Reporting

Regarding their commitment to analytics, Dr. Celeste Schwartz, Vice President for Information Technology explains: “We don’t do ‘gut’ at Montgomery College. We do not make decisions based on gut instincts, but instead, make all of our decisions, down to the individual assessment of how each of us are performing in our jobs, based on data.

One thing we realized in this process,” said Schwartz, “is we have been heavily involved in student success work wrapped around analytics for the last eight years. We literally have more data than we know what to do with. That’s why we’ve partnered with Civitas Learning. As we continue this adventure with student success data; the only way to make a real difference is to look at the data deeply.”

“Our work with Civitas will focus on looking at a portion of time in the student lifecycle,” said Schwartz. “We will focus on the first touch point of student engagement through the fourth week of the second semester.

We have enough data to validate that this particular time span is really important for our College. Our data shows if a student can persist to the fourth week of the second semester, their likelihood to persist to transfer or graduation is much greater. We’re looking forward to reporting our findings on this work later this year.”

This college-wide, long-held commitment to analytics requires looking at “the good, the bad and the ugly” according to Schwartz, and the value of this commitment is evidenced by a plethora of highly successful grant-funded programs and innovative initiatives that are helping students succeed. It’s also keeping Montgomery County Community College on the front-lines of student success in the U.S.

Read below for an overview of just a few of the many interesting and successful initiatives underway at MCCC.

Using a Mooc-like Resource to Build Financial Literacy

“We have a Next Generation Learning Challenge grant — a competitive grant awarded by EDUCAUSE –funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,” says Schwartz. “We decided we wanted to develop a MOOC-like resource (massive, open, online course) to take the place of the more traditional student success course in order to avoid putting another 3-credit course financial burden on our students. We wanted a new model.”

In their student success work they had learned a lot about how finances impact a student’s willingness and ability to persist and stay engaged with the college.

“The second most significant reason a student withdraws in the first two weeks at MCCC is financial,” said Schwartz. “It’s not necessarily that they can’t pay for college, it’s that they didn’t necessarily understand other college expenses, such as transportation, books, childcare.” She says she hears prospective students with two jobs say they’ll quit one and go to college, but then neglect to figure in the cost of the day-to-day expenses they’ll still incur.

“So we built an open access resource we intend to share broadly,” said Schwartz. “We plan to make it available free to every student and their parents in Montgomery County, and we encourage other peer institutions to also adopt the content.” Her team has built a pilot with ten modules based on design thinking.

“We found out what students wanted and needed to know  – rather than guessing – and we used the Public Agenda research organization as well to determine the areas of focus,” said Schwartz. The resource will fully rollout to all students in May 2015. “Right now we are building it piece-by-piece,” she said. Already, more than 1,000 people have gone in to access the information. “It’s an open and free resource. It has very user-friendly language about complicated financial issues. The course includes animations and videos with MCCC students talking about their own paths to financial literacy,” she said.

Reinventing Math Remediation

“When you truly commit to an inquiry-based culture wrapped around analytics you have to be willing to look at what isn’t working,” said Leon Hill, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research and Effectiveness.

“We discovered through data research that our developmental math courses were not succeeding,” said Hill. With these courses critical to the future success of students needing remediation, the 30 percent successful completion rate was enormously problematic. “You can see the problem – if students can’t get out of Math 010 then they can’t get to Algebra, and without that, they simply can’t graduate,” said Hill.

This is where a Math assistant professor at the West Campus, Barbara Lontz, stepped in. She decided to repurpose MCCC’s lowest-level math remediation course and build up from there. In her pilot year she saw great gains with student success and reached out to other math teachers to utilize her pedagogy. “What we saw was the standard math protocol had success rates around 30%, and the pedagogical approach Barbara designed and delivered experienced student success rates in high 60 percent range,” said Hill.

Where students previously would learn the four basic standards of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division simultaneously, within the standard protocol of working with first whole numbers in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; then fractions across the four standards; then distributive properties across the four standards, etc., Lontz focused an entire segment of the course only on addition and used it across the full spectrum – teaching how to add integers, fractions, decimals, and complex equations. “The result was a huge increase in student confidence as they truly grasped the concept of addition before moving on to subtraction.” The mastery approach worked.

“We still see some issues when we segment the data, so there’s room to improve it further, but the program has gone national. Other community colleges across the country have picked up on this pedagogy,” said Hill.

Comparative Data Analysis for Placement Tests

“Another area where we saw huge gains,” said Hill, “is in our developmental English courses. Thanks to data analytics, we were able to look deeply at placement test scoring and our strategy for placement into remedial courses. We wondered if we were holding students in developmental education who might, in fact, succeed in English 101.” Schwartz and her team did a deep data dive, including a look at national comps from other college test scoring rubrics for placement into English 101. When they segmented the data, they found a top-tier of students at MCCC who were being directed into developmental education. The team hypothesized these students could succeed in English 101. The English faculty re-calibrated placement test score cutoffs. “In one semester we moved 1,200 students out of developmental education and into credit-bearing English 101. They did just as well as peers placed directly into the course. That’s a huge gain,” said Schwartz.

Integrated Planning & Advising Services  Grant

MCCC is finishing up their active grant work on their iPAS Grant with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It centers around our student success initiative that included completely redesigning advising and the accompanying technologies we use with that process,” said Schwartz. “The grant gave us time to be very strategic about this and really explore the best approach. Our advisors were bogged down in the day-to-day of trying to get students registered, rather than really getting to advise students on their academic choices and future careers. Each semester they could have a different advisor and the advising process was voluntary.” Initially the college implemented an early alert system that was deemed unsuccessful because of the burden it put on faculty and advisors having to manage entries that didn’t close the loop automatically. “Our data showed it wasn’t working, our faculty didn’t like it, and so we stopped using it. We went to Starfish (recently partnered with Civitas Learning) and our faculty participation in the mid-term reporting process grew from 73% to 90% in one semester. The College also partnered with Ellucian to implement Student Educational Planning, and in the first semester 3,400 students have created educational plans and are active in the student-advisor conversations,” she said.

“We’re okay with the fact we aren’t using any one single analytics tool, but are focused on many that can work together,” said Schwartz. “Our commitment is to empower end users to really own and act upon their data – whether students, faculty, administrators or staff.


Dr. Celeste Schwartz

Dr. Celeste Schwartz, Vice President for Information Technology and College Services at Montgomery County Community College, provides leadership and directs all aspects of the College's academic and administrative information technology management and strategies which focus on the College's continuing goal of student success. She also provides leadership and oversight for College Services.

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