Higher Learning Commission

Increasing Student Success by Building Institutional Capacity for Continuous Improvement

Oakton Community College

Overview of the Quality Initiative

1. Provide a brief description of the Quality Initiative. Explain whether the initiative will begin and be completed during the Quality Initiative period or if it is part of work already in progress or will achieve a key milestone in the work of a longer initiative.

Oakton Community College has selected its participation in Achieving the Dream, beginning in 2013, as the Quality Initiative to support its accreditation process through the Open Pathways model of the Higher Learning Commission. Achieving the Dream (ATD) is a national initiative designed to improve the academic outcomes of community college students, especially those who are low-income or students of color. Achieving the Dream was launched in 2004 with funding from the Lumina Foundation, and in collaboration with seven partners, including the Community College Research Center at Columbia University and MDC. The ATD network consists of over 200 colleges in 35 states and the District of Columbia who are actively working to increase the success of 4 million community college students.

Although Oakton’s focus on student success precedes its participation in Achieving the Dream, the ATD approach provides the tools, supports, and knowledge base to develop and execute a comprehensive student success strategy and to “take risks, innovate, [and] take on a tough challenge”—precisely the focus of the Open Pathways Quality Initiative project. The approach also helps community colleges build a culture of evidence by using data to examine how students are performing and to identify barriers to their success. Colleges are expected to develop intervention strategies that are designed to improve student outcomes, to conduct further research and evaluation to understand how these strategies impact student success, and to bring effective programs to scale. To accomplish this, there are four phases within the approach, including: (1) commit to the initiative, (2) use data to prioritize actions, (3) engage stakeholders, and (4) implement, evaluate, and improve. These four phases are repeated to establish a culture of learning and continuous quality improvement. With a focus on data and evidence-based decision-making, Achieving the Dream colleges use regular review of five key indicators to determine whether interventions are “moving the needle” for student success:

  • Developmental to college pathway: percentage of students successfully completing developmental courses and advancing to college-level courses
  • Gateway course success: percentage of students enrolling in and successfully completing initial college-level gateway courses
  • Overall course success: percentage of students successfully completing all college-level courses with a grade of “C” or better
  • Persistence: percentage of students persisting within their first year at the college
  • Completion and/or transfer: percentage of students earning a certificate or associate degree, as well as transferring to a four-year college or university

Achieving the Dream also adopts an equity focus and, along with increasing student success overall, colleges examine these five key indicators to uncover and address any achievement gaps based upon race, gender, age, and income.

Oakton Community College shares its goals for this Quality Initiative project with other institutions in the Achieving the Dream network: improve student success, enhance leadership commitment to student success, increase research capacity and the use of data-driven decision-making, develop interventions that are aimed at improving student achievement, and foster fundamental changes in the culture and operations of the college that will lead to measurable and lasting improvements in student outcomes. To that end, and as this proposal will elaborate, Oakton has adopted three priority areas for its participation in Achieving the Dream during its initial commitment from 2013 to 2016:


  Priority Area Description Goal
1 Placement Revise policies and develop interventions to ensure that the academic readiness of all students matches the academic skills required of their coursework by accurately placing all new students in reading, writing, and math.

Decrease the number of new students with no placement information in reading, writing, and math.

Increase the number of methods and measures that can be used to place students.

2 Developmental Education Revise policies and develop interventions to ensure that the academic readiness of all students matches the academic skills required of their coursework.

Increase the success of students in college-level courses by determining which developmental and ESL courses should require mandatory enrollment.

Increase the percentage of students with developmental or ESL placements who matriculate to college-level reading, writing, and/or math.

Decrease the average time on the developmental to college pathway in reading, writing, and math.

3 Persistence Assess the relative impact of the early alert program and other support programs, revise policies that negatively impact student persistence, and develop interventions to increase student persistence Increase the fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall student persistence rates.


Sufficiency of the Initiative's Scope and Significance

2. Explain why the proposed initiative is relevant and significant for the institution.

Current Practice

Prior to participation in Achieving the Dream, the Student Success Working Group was formed at Oakton in 2010 to develop a student success plan and build a culture focused upon student success. This commitment to student success was largely prompted by the national focus on student engagement, persistence, and retention. Prior to joining Achieving the Dream, the Student Success Working Group sought to follow a number of ATD approaches, including the formation of a cross-institutional team, the usage of data to make informed decisions about how to enhance student success, and studying and replicating student success interventions from other colleges. In its student success plan, the Student Success Working Group also adopted a number of student success indicators comparable to those outlined by Achieving the Dream, including:

  • successful course completion
  • successful progress through course sequences
  • term-to-term persistence
  • completion of a credential
  • successful transfer to a four-year college or university

Though the Student Success Working Group laid the foundation for an institutional student success focus, it struggled to cultivate broad-based engagement around student success, to bring student success interventions to scale, and to impact the success of a significant number of Oakton students. As a result, the college’s senior leadership team sought a new model that would align with the Student Success strategic goal outlined in the 2013-2017 strategic plan, Connecting What Matters. The determination was made that participation in ATD would provide external expertise and prompt the college to make courageous, transformative decisions. Additionally, the senior leadership team surmised that participation in a national movement might catalyze change at Oakton if faculty and staff were aware of student success interventions across the nation. The college’s Board of Trustees affirmed and supported the decision to join Achieving the Dream, as Jody Wadhwa, then-chair of the Board of Trustees, shared: “We are proud of the accomplishments of our students yet, at the same time, we are aware that their success is not at the level we wish it to be. Connecting What Matters, Oakton’s strategic plan for 2013-17, identifies student success as a primary college goal, and we believe Achieving the Dream will help us move forward with vigorous interventions, to identify and address gaps in achievement among student subgroups, and to have the courage to evaluate our efforts and take corrective action.”

Potential for Significant Impact

Our Quality Initiative project has the potential to make a significant impact at Oakton in two key ways. First, data reveal that work within the three priority areas—placement, developmental education, and persistence—has the potential to significantly impact the success of all students, thereby demonstrating the relevance and significance of participation in Achieving the Dream at this time.

  • Over one-third of Oakton students have no placement information: Oakton’s placement policy requires that all students must complete the reading, writing, and math placement process before registering for their 13th credit hour in a single semester. This placement policy allows students to register for 1 to 12 credit hours in a given semester without having to complete a placement test or provide placement information. Placement provides a measure of academic readiness for college-level coursework, yet the college has no placement information for one-third of Oakton students in reading, writing, and math each.

  • Students with developmental placements have lower success in gateway courses: Lacking college-wide prerequisite policies, students with developmental placements are able to enroll in college-level gateway courses outside of English and Math.

      Gateway Course Success Rate:
    Developmental Placement
    Gateway Course Success Rate:
    College Placement
    Reading 65% 73%
    Writing 50% 72%
    Math 64% 77%

    These students are significantly less successful in gateway courses, then their peers with college level placements.

  • Half of new students do not persist within the first year: The aforementioned data contribute, in part, to low student persistence rates.

    Fall-to-Spring Fall-to-Fall Fall to Two Fall Terms Later
    65% 46% 28%

  • Eighteen percent of students who seek to earn a credential actually do: Completion of a degree or certificate is a lagging indicator, with each of the previous leading indicators preparing students to reach their initial goal for study at Oakton. Of students who reported the desire to earn a credential when they applied to Oakton, 70 percent departed the college before doing so.

Second, it will transform the operational culture at Oakton into a learning organization with a student-centered culture. Participation in Achieving the Dream will require college leadership—from the president and senior leadership team to the Board of Trustees and faculty leaders—to express a commitment to student success and support this commitment by making changes in policies, practices, procedures, and resource allocation to improve student outcomes. The proposed project also repositions institutional leadership for student success as a representative, cross-institutional team leads the process by developing strategies for overcoming barriers to student achievement, using data to evaluate and improve intervention strategies, and building stakeholder engagement through communications and feedback loops to their respective departments and employee groups. The current practice is also missing an institutional proclivity toward data-driven decision-making, and the Achieving the Dream model develops a college wide expectation of data analyses to understand trends in student success, prioritize actions, and identify a manageable set of priority areas to ensure that institutional focus and resource allocation are targeted to the greatest effect. Our expectation is that the Achieving the Dream approach will not just significantly impact our student success efforts but how the college “does business” overall. We expect to build a culture of continuous improvement that introspectively examines policies and practices, directs resources toward institutional priorities, expands strategies based upon evidence of what works, and provides professional development to support engagement.

Alignment with Mission, Vision, Values, and Strategic Plan

Oakton Community College’s student-focused mission and explicit commitment to student success in the strategic plan undergird this Quality Initiative project as one of paramount importance to the institution. Improving student success through our participation in Achieving the Dream is the top priority for Oakton Community College at this time.

Mission, Vision, and Values Statement

We are the community’s college.

  • We are dedicated, first, to excellence in teaching and learning.
  • We challenge our students to experience the hard work and satisfaction of learning that leads to intellectual growth and support them academically, emotionally and socially.
  • We encourage them to entertain question ideas, think critically, solve problems, and engage with other cultures, with one another and with us.
  • We expect our students to assume responsibility for their own learning, to exercise leadership and to apply ethical principles in their academic work and personal lives.
  • We demand from ourselves and our students tolerance, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and integrity. We are a community of learners.
  • We provide education and training for and throughout a lifetime.
  • We seek to improve and expand the services we offer in support of the people in the communities we serve.
  • We promote a caring community of staff and faculty members, students, administrators and trustees who, in keeping with our values, work together to fulfill our mission.

We are a changing community.

  • We recognize that change is inevitable and that education must be for the future.
  • We respond to change informed by our values and our responsibility to our students and our communities.
  • We challenge our students to be capable global citizens, guided by knowledge and ethical principles, who will shape the future.

2013-2017 Strategic Plan, Connecting What Matters - Student Success Goal

Oakton will demonstrate a renewed commitment to student success. The College will cultivate and engage in practices that foster the attainment of academic, career, and personal outcomes determined and developed through collaboration between the student and the College. Oakton expects extra- and co-curricular activities and programs to support these efforts. Oakton will identify specific obstacles to student success and develop innovative, effective strategies to help students overcome these obstacles. In addition to students’ goals, Oakton acknowledges that success is tied to College, state, and national priorities relating to completion and transfer.

3. Explain the intended impact of the initiative on the institution and its academic quality.

This Quality Initiative project will fundamentally change how we educate and engage students at Oakton Community College. This section explains how we will develop through this effort and the indicators that will measure this development.

Increased focus on equity and reducing achievement gaps. Participation in ATD will encourage us to disaggregate student outcomes data by race, gender, income, and these data will illuminate how to focus our efforts on closing achievement gaps. In addition to data analysis, measures from the annual ATD Principles Survey include:

  • The institution has a climate of respect for inclusiveness.
  • The institution consistently demonstrates a commitment to equity for all students.
  • Multicultural perspectives are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Broad engagement around the student success agenda. Efforts to improve student success will involve collective examination of student outcomes, alignment and extensive collaboration between academic units and student affairs staff, and active student participation. Broad engagement will also be developed through college-wide communications that share data, information on effective practices, and updates on intervention development and evaluation. Similarly, this impact will be measured through results from the ATD Principles Survey, including:

  • College communications, including website and news releases, emphasize a student success agenda.
  • Part-time or adjunct faculty are actively engaged in institutional efforts to improve student success.
  • College secures active student participation in efforts to improve student outcomes.

Amplified commitment to student success by college leadership. Strong senior leadership that plays an active role in championing the college’s reforms and that models and expects strong participation from employees will be required to maintain student success and Achieving the Dream at the forefront of the college. Measures from the annual ATD Principles Survey include:

  • CEO and leadership team actively supports efforts to improve student learning and completion, not just increase enrollments.
  • The board expects, and the CEO provides, regular reports on student outcomes and the impact of efforts to improve success rates.
  • Senior leaders demonstrate willingness to support changes in policy, procedures, and resource allocation to improve student success.

Increased capacity to gather and analyze data. The expectation is that the Achieving the Dream approach will increase data use and capacity for data use through improved IT infrastructure, development of a data warehouse, upgrading of statistical software, and creation of data dashboards. This impact will be measured by annual employee participation in the ATD Principles Survey, which asks for ratings of related statements, including:

  • IT capacity is adequate to meet the demand for data and institutional research.
  • Policies and procedures are in place to ensure integrity of data collected.
  • IR staff capacity is adequate to meet demand for data and research.

Increased program evaluation to ensure effective intervention strategies. Evaluation plans for interventions use data to understand the effectiveness of these strategies and to scale up strategies that improve student outcomes. Additionally, statements on the ATD Principles Survey will provide data to understand the effectiveness of program evaluations.

  • College regularly conducts surveys and focus groups with students, faculty, and staff to identify weaknesses in programs and services and opportunities for improvement.
  • College routinely engages personnel from across the campus community to review data on student achievement and help develop and refine strategies for addressing priority problems.
  • College routinely evaluates the effectiveness of efforts to improve student success and uses the results to improve policy and practice.

Improved planning and accreditation processes for student success. Participation in ATD will positively impact institutional effectiveness by influencing the college to maintain a strategic planning process that relies upon data to set and measure goals for student success, develop congruency between the strategic plan and the ATD effort to drive the college toward its student success goals, and integrate student success within accreditation activities. Measures from the annual ATD Principles Survey include:

  • College has established a strategic planning process that relies on data to set goals for student success and measures of goal attainment.
  • Plans for a given year are driven by a limited set of strategic priorities that have a focus on student success.
  • The student success agenda is integrated with on-going accreditation activity.

Clarity of the Initiative's Purpose

4. Describe the purposes and goals for the initiative.

The Achieving the Dream Quality Initiative is designed to improve student success outcomes. To do this, we will identify priority areas for improvement, draw upon available evidence and research to select strategies that show promise for improving outcomes in these areas, develop small scale pilots through broad engagement, use evaluation results to refine strategies, and scale up interventions that yield promising trends in student success. This initiative is designed to positively impact the following priorities—placement, developmental education, and persistence.

Priority 1: Placement

Description: This priority will focus on recommendations to ensure the academic readiness of all students matches the academic skills required of their coursework by accurately placing all new students in reading, writing, and math.

Proposed Goals and Interventions:

  1. There will be placement information on all entering students. Placement information may include, but is not limited to, test results, prior academic work, or other information.
  2. Placement information is effectively communicated to students and used effectively to guide students on their college pathway.
  3. Guidelines, systems, multiple measures, and personnel will address placement results including those on the borderline between two placement levels.
  4. Oakton will continue to review its placement instruments and procedures to assure that they are informed by appropriate national best practices; that they allow students multiple measures of their skills; that they are fair and equitable; that they are efficient and do not pose unnecessary barriers to access; and that they correspond to best practices in the academic disciplines, as determined by the Math and English departments.
  5. We carefully track the effects of placement policies on students to ensure fairness, equity, and student success.
  6. There will be effective and varied test preparation materials readily accessible to all entering students.

Priority 2: Developmental Education

Description: This priority will focus on recommendations to ensure the academic readiness of all students matches the academic skills required of their coursework.

Proposed Goals and Interventions:

  1. MAT 060: All developmental math courses were redesigned using the NCAT Emporium model, MAT 060 (Pre-algebra) had the lowest success scores. The scores in the redesigned MAT 060 course were lower than the average test score prior to the redesign. Examination of the students who failed Pre-algebra during the 2011-2012 academic years showed that the module on fractions represented a barrier that many of the students never overcame. This course will be adjusted to increase student success in the fractions module.

Priority 3: Persistence

Description: This priority will focus on reviewing persistence data (including data from the new StudentsFirst early alert program and other supporting programs) to assess relative impact on persistence and create interventions to increase student persistence.

Proposed Interventions:

  1. In summer 2013, Oakton implemented an academic early alert program, StudentsFirst. This program aimed at providing support to students early in a semester to facilitate their completion in courses in which they are experiencing difficulty. This committee will review the early alert data, assess the effectiveness of the program, and make recommendations on increasing the effectiveness to increase student persistence.

5. Describe how the institution will evaluate progress, make adjustments, and determine what has been accomplished.

Achieving the Dream provides a framework for evaluation, including intensive coaching by two highly experienced professionals—David Hartleb, Leadership Coach and former president of Northern Essex Community College, and Brad Phillips, Data Coach and President/CEO of the Institute for Evidence Based Change. Their support includes ongoing feedback, evaluative visits to Oakton in the fall and spring terms, and the delivery of relevant professional development workshops. ATD also requires the submission of a four-year implementation plan. Additionally, the college will submit an Annual Reflection Narrative, including a progress statement, reflection upon the results of the ATD Principles Survey, and yearly goals and action steps. Our coaching team and the ATD staff review the Annual Reflection Narrative and provide observations about progress toward achieving our student success and equity goals.

Ultimately, our progress on this Quality Initiative project will be assessed by our ability to improve academic outcomes on the five student success indicators outlined in the Overview. We will track outcomes for each entering fall cohort, make comparisons with past cohorts to determine whether outcomes improve, disaggregate the data, and map the impact of interventions on the outcomes. We will also regularly conduct surveys and focus groups with students and employees to identify strengths and weaknesses in programs and services, as well as opportunities for improvement.

Potential challenges to our progress include:

  • A need for increased focus on employee engagement, particularly given that two-thirds of credit hours are taught by part-time faculty
  • Waiting for improvements to appear in the longitudinal data
  • The need for increased research capacity in order to make evidence-based decisions about priority areas
  • Building engagement and commitment throughout the faculty ranks and breaking through skepticism about new initiatives
  • Breaking down silos and building common goals among academic programs and student affairs areas
  • Communicating with and engaging the entire college community

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

6. Describe the level of support for the initiative by internal or external stakeholders.

Student success and a commitment to Achieving the Dream have the highest level of support at Oakton. Retired president Margaret Lee provided the initial leadership for defining this initiative, and current president, Joianne Smith, continues to position it as our highest priority. The Board of Trustees supports this project and expects regular reports on students’ outcomes and the impact of institutional efforts to improve student success. Presentations were held at faculty division meetings to introduce the ATD approach and build support for this initiative. Achieving the Dream was also shared with the administrative team, who has granted full support for the initiative. Visits were also made to department meetings to help staff, especially those disconnected from planning for student success, to understand the myriad factors that impact student success and how departments could help advance the goals of this initiative. Meetings were also held with the Student Government Association to introduce ATD to students and to hear their ideas about how students could be engaged within the effort.

7. Identify the groups and individuals that will lead or be directly involved in implementing the initiative.

This initiative is being led by Michael Carr, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Sebastian Contreras, Jr., Dean of Student Success. Maya Evans, Director of Research and Planning, provides data leadership for the effort. The Student Success Team has primary responsibility for implementing the initiative, and there is a subcommittee that oversees work on each priority area. Members of the Student Success Team and the subcommittees are from different departments and labor groups in order to ensure that different perspectives are heard and to provide a mechanism for the college to provide feedback to the Team and subcommittees. Membership on the Student Success Team and/or its subcommittees includes four members of President’s Council, five members of Academic Council, six members of the Student Affairs Leadership Team, the president of the full-time faculty association, 16 full-time or adjunct faculty, and staff representatives from Information Technology, College Relations, Financial Aid, Registrar Services, Advising Services, Budget Office, Learning Center, and the Access and Disability Resource Center.

8. List the human, financial, technological and other resources that the institution has committed to this initiative.

Achieving the Dream costs $75,000 per year for a three year commitment. In addition, the college pays travel expenses for a team to attend the required Kick-Off Institute, a three-day event during the summer of initial membership. The college also pays travel expenses for attendees at the 3-day DREAM Institute. The total college commitment of direct expenses for the ATD fee, travel to the Kick-Off Institute, and annual travel to the DREAM Institute is approximately $255,000. Human resources committed to this initiative include the Student Success Team; members of the Placement, Developmental Education, and Persistence subcommittees, Higher Learning Commission Open Pathways Steering Committee, and offices of Institutional Research and Information Technology. Technology resources include a budget allocation to support the development of a data warehouse. Financial resources include the general fund and special funding requests, as well as access to grant opportunities made available only to ATD institutions.

Appropriateness of the Timeline for the Initiative

9. Describe the primary activities of the initiative and timeline for implementing them.


Priority 1: Placement

Measurable Yearly Indicators:

  • Planning and information gathering for 2013-14
  • Implementing a new policy for 2014-15
Work Plan Action Steps 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 Lead Staff Members
Create a list of student information that Oakton currently collects as it relates to academic level. X        
Collect course success data using measures other than the results of placement exam X        
Increase data sharing agreements with district high schools. X       Michael Carr and Maya Evans
Review test preparation materials for Math and English tests to ensure the materials adequately prepare students for the placement exam. X        
Meet with IT, Enrollment Services, Advising Services, and Career Programs to discuss proposed changes and their impact on their departments. X        
Implement new policies and procedures to eliminate students with no placement information. X        
Assess impact of new placement policy X X X X  



Priority 2: Developmental Education

Measurable Yearly Indicators:

  • Increase student pass rates in MAT 060
  • Students will report an increase in connection to the course material
Work Plan Action Steps 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 Lead Staff Members
Rebuild MAT 060 with support of adjunct faculty.    X      Jinhee Canfield
Train faculty as to the difference in pace associated with MAT 060.    X      Julia Hassett
Collect data from student results in MAT 060.    X    

Sam Kleinerman

Compare results with past MAT 060 sections    X      Bob Sompolski
Rebuild MAT 070 with support of adjunct faculty.      X    Jinhee Canfield
Train faculty as to the difference in pace associated with MAT 070.      X    Jennifer Strehler
Collect data from student results in MAT 070.     X    Sam Kleinerman
Compare results with past MAT 070 sections.     X   Bob Sompolski
Review developmental policy which allows students to enroll in college-level courses with a developmental placement.     X    
Implement new policy to ensure the academic readiness of the student aligns with the academic skills required of their coursework.     X    



Priority 3: Persistence

Measurable Yearly Indicators:

  • Planning and information gathering for 2013-14
  • Implementing new interventions and/or scaling current programs for 2014-15
Work Plan Action Steps 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 Lead Staff Members
Outline the student entry process, determine touch points, determine which departments and processes engage with beginning students, and identify which touch points are options versus required. X        
Using the evaluation template, complete evaluation of all current programs that support student persistence. X        
Review literature on best practices in persistence. X        
Create final report on all findings and report results. X        
Based upon the evaluation, implement changes to increase the effectiveness of early alert software    X      
Implement other recommendations based upon year one report findings    X      



Institution Contact

Maya Evans, Executive Director of Research and Planning

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC highly recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but none represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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