Amarillo College shifts its focus to new crop of students

Amarillo College has put student social services front and center — literally.

 

The college transformed the old library building on its Washington Street Campus into a sleek collection of assistance for needy students, including a food pantry, clothing closet and a tutoring center. Services formerly scattered across campus were brought together at its bustling heart. Big, glass windows show off the area.

“By putting it front and center, we have erased the stigma of poverty,” Amarillo College Regent Michele Fortunato said in a presentation to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state’s college oversight agency.

The conversion of the library into the Advocacy and Resource Center — or ARC as students call it — is one of a number of data-driven efforts to overhaul the school amid shrinking state financial support and years of declining enrollment.

Leading the seismic shift at the community college of roughly 10,000 students – about 1,500 of whom are below the poverty line – is Russell Lowery-Hart, the bow-tied president of the college since fall 2014.

With Lowery-Hart at the helm, the college has implemented a policy of “no excuses” when students drop out. Lowery-Hart, who rose through the ranks at West Texas A&M University before coming to AC in 2010, has taken a deeply analytical approach. He said the approach has helped the college pinpoint the needs of its students with laser accuracy.

“With our data and analytics, and the robust nature of that, we’re no longer having conversations about students in broad terms,” Lowery-Hart said. “We’re using data analytics to define specific plans for their success.”

Lowery-Hart said the college mapped out the typical student, with what he said were surprising findings: The average student is 26 years old, female, a minority, first-generation and attends class part time.

A list of characteristics is printed on a pamphlet distributed to teachers and visitors. Lowery-Hart named the average student profile Maria.

“The college is structuring around serving her,” he said, noting students like Maria are becoming the most successful on campus.

Typically, the majority of the students enrolled at Amarillo College have roots in Amarillo Independent School District, where 67 percent of students qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program — an often-used indicator of poverty in public education.

The approach has also seemingly helped the school be in better control of its financial destiny after it was stung by state funding cuts.

In 2015, college regents voted to resort to buyouts and layoffs to balance the budget, citing an unexpected cut of $3.5 million from the state over two years.

When the Texas Legislature met again this year, lawmakers scaled back funding for the college by about $550,000.

Finding ways to keep students from dropping out has been a way to bolster revenue. The state reduction puts a strain on the institution’s other two revenue streams — tuition and local property taxes.

The college added $6 million in revenue to its bottom line by increasing the fall-to-fall retention rate 13 percentage points, Fortunato said. “Student success has created a positive impact on the whole campus,” she said.

Lowery-Hart isn’t taking all the credit for the improvements. During the tenure of previous President Paul Matney, AC joined Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit that takes a data-based approach to helping students succeed, particularly minority and low-income students.

The group is partnered with over 200 higher education institutions throughout 35 states.

“We began to understand increasingly the importance of having data, and I think now it’s probably more important than ever,” said Matney, who served as president from his rise to acting president in 2008 until his retirement in 2014.

Matney said he saw a shift “from success to access” during his time at the helm. The importance of gathering data to find out exactly who the students are went hand-in-hand with that goal, he said.

“Access is important — that’s the ability to get into college,” Matney said. “But what good is that going to do if we can’t be successful?”

To avoid thinking of students only as numbers, the AC Board of Regents meetings include a composite of 100 student portraits at the start of the school year. As the semester progresses and students drop out, the portraits fade away.

“The conversation then isn’t about data — it’s about lives,” Lowery-Hart said.

Another example of the changing attitude is in the names of programs. What formerly used to be called the “nontraditional student program” at the college is now the “adult student program.”

The program provides scholarships, textbooks and other resources to students 24 and older with children.

“It was called nontraditional until realized that’s the traditional student,” said Jordan Herrera, AC’s director of social services.

The college recently began converting the majority of its classes to eight weeks in length, taking cues from Odessa College. The somewhat-controversial shift has shown results, college leaders say.

AC has also placed a renewed focus on summer classes, recently launching an advertising campaign to promote year-round attendance after data showed students who took at least one summer course came back in the fall at a 26 percent higher rate.

Its social service programs have served more than 5 percent of the student body, Herrera said.

Both the eight-week course transition and the focus on summer are more attempts to increase student retention.They supplement the expanded and centralized food bank and clothing closet.

AC also has a special “no excuses” fund that pays for emergency assistance with issues like transportation or child care, Herrera said.

“We never really know what’s coming through the door; we never know what those needs are,” she said.

But what about the male, full-time, traditional-age students?

West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler recently traveled the Texas Panhandle to encourage high schoolers to consider Amarillo College or another community college alternative before taking out a loan to attend a university.

With skyrocketing tuition rates at state universities, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is placing a similar emphasis to achieve its goal of 60X30TX — by the year 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans between the ages of 25 and 34 will have a certificate or degree.

Lowery-Hart said the college – which has an even more ambitious goal of 70 percent completion by 2020 – is not diverting resources away from traditional students fresh out of high school.

AC’s population of traditional students has remained steady relative to the number of students like Maria, Lowery-Hart said. But he thinks improvement is needed on serving 18- and 19-year-old men who are in college for the first time.

He said the college is working on an intervention system to use data to link at-risk students with the college’s bevy of resources.

The renewed focus on social services has created friction among some faculty and staff at the institution.

Lowery-Hart and Fortunato, then-board of regents chairwoman, missed the college’s honors convocation in April. The pair were accepting a 2017 Bellwether Award award for poverty work in Austin. Their absence highlighted for some in the AC community a lack of concern for academics.

But Lowery-Hart’s efforts have been rewarded with strong support from the college’s governing body. The AC Board of Regents in May voted to give him what college staff has described as an unprecedented five-year contract.

“It has been a seismic shift in philosophy and execution and in focus,” Lowery-Hart said, “and it’s working.”

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