Nationally, community college graduation rates are low. One-in-five first-time students studying full-time are able to earn a two-year degree within three years, according to federal statistics. Over the past decade, NOVA has raised its graduation rate from 12 percent to 23 percent.
There are few barriers of entry for community colleges: They have minimal admission requirements and charge relatively low tuition. But that doesn't mean an easy path for students to chart. NOVA offers 76 different two-year degree majors and 68 shorter certificate programs. Students who want to transfer to a four-year university need to be on top of their intended university's requirements to make sure that their transcript fulfills them.
Many community college administrators want to find ways to help students navigate their way to a degree and, if desired, a successful transition to a four-year school. But it's not easy to keep track of such a fluid student body. The majority of NOVA students attend part-time. Some disappear for a semester, reappear the following fall, and then disappear again. Students don't have to tell anyone when they switch degree programs, which often prolongs their time at the college.
In an effort to get a handle on helping students, NOVA administrators are using data to detect and address the challenges students face. That's unusual for a community college, says George Gabriel, vice president of NOVA's Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Student Success Initiatives.
"Data guys are sometimes almost like a back-room operation" on some campuses, Gabriel tells me on a recent visit to NOVA's administrative campus. His portfolio includes the rehauling of NOVA's advising and tracking system, and he's constantly pushing the college to base more decisions on data, with the full backing of NOVA's president. At the administration's weekly "cabinet meeting," Gabriel leads discussion on the first two agenda items: student access (essentially, enrollment), and student success (retention, transfers, and graduation rates).
NOVA's institutional research team digs into all the data the college routinely tracks—like enrollment numbers, transfer rates and course grades—and assesses external data such as local employment patterns as well. They track student surveys and are constantly looking to identify pitfalls.
For years, NOVA graduates had been telling the university that the advising system needed an overhaul. Counselors were widely available, but that didn't stop students from discovering—at the last minute—that they were missing key credits and couldn't graduate as planned. The college assigns each student a faculty advisor, but some students have no idea who their advisor is.
NOVA started to assess the resources available to new students in 2007, when it joined Achieving the Dream, a network of community colleges primarily funded by the Lumina Foundation. NOVA piloted an orientation for first-time students and studied whether participants were more likely to return the following semester. Then in 2010, as part of its re-accreditation process, NOVA set a goal of improving advising for first-time students.