Enrollment at community colleges across Virginia and the nation has been declining for several years. Thomas Nelson is no exception. However, the rate at which Thomas Nelson students are graduating within 150% of intended time rose from 10.7% to 26.6% in nine years.
“That’s good news for the institution, good news for our students,” said Steven Felker, director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at the College.
The United States Department of Education defines “150% of intended time” as three years (traditionally two) for an associate degree and six years (traditionally four) for a bachelor’s. The agency gathers information for full-time, first-time students who are seeking a degree or certificate. There were 815 such students who entered Thomas Nelson in fall 2016. Of that figure, 217 earned an associate degree or certificate within the 150% of intended time window (by spring 2019). That’s a success rate of 26.6%
Those numbers, which are the most recent available, are up drastically from fall 2008. That year, 10.7% earned an associate degree or certificate on time. The percent of Thomas Nelson students earning an associate degree or certificate on time has increased every year since the fall 2008 semester, but usually just a few percentage points, and never more than 3. However, the increase from those beginning in fall 2015 to those beginning in fall 2016 was 6.9%, the second largest among the 23 institutions in the VCCS.
“We’ve had incremental (increases),” said Felker, who noted the increase in the most recent year was much greater in magnitude. In addition, he added that when he joined the College in 2008, Thomas Nelson was among the lowest of 23 VCCS institutions in terms of graduation rates.
He said Thomas Nelson’s rate now is close to the VCCS average of 30% and slightly higher than the average rate of 26% among the five largest colleges in the VCCS (Northern Virginia, Tidewater, John Tyler, Reynolds, and Thomas Nelson).
“There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into (this),” said Cynthia Callaway, vice president of Institutional Advancement, adding the increase of more than 6% is “pretty unheard of at a community college.”
Still, Callaway and others at the College know there is more work to be done and more improvements to be made.
“We’re still not where we ought to be or where we’d like to be,” she said.
What is behind this increase?
The success can be traced to several factors from a variety of departments and programs at Thomas Nelson. Many of the improvements derived from the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). Titled “Advising: Plan Now. Succeed Now,” QEP was developed during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years and implemented in summer 2016.
“The QEP likely played an important role in improving student outcomes,” said Dana Cook, the College’s interim Director of Admissions.
One suggestion in the QEP is making sure Student Affairs emphasizes the value of the associate degree. Numerous studies and reports released in the past 10 years indicate that an associate degree graduate earns on average 25-70% more in their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma.
Another factor is the College recently began encouraging students to take 15 credit hours a semester, three above the minimum to be considered full time. However, it doesn’t cost more to take those three additional credits each semester.
It also pays off in the long run because students will finish sooner, saving them an extra semester or two of tuition. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, tuition and fees at a two-year school average almost $3,400 a year. In addition, those students can enter the workforce sooner, thereby earning a salary when their classmates would still be in class.
Kris Rarig, vice president for Student Affairs, said the discrepancy between the 12- and 15-credit hour plan is because the former is the minimum for financial aid, but most associate degrees require 60 credits, or 15 a semester to finish in two years.
“We have made specific efforts to communicate to students that 15 credit hours is the norm and is the credit load for on-time completion,” she said. “This is one area where we have been able to make steady, measurable progress, and we are very pleased about it.”
Callaway said it’s up to the College to make sure students are aware of that.
“We have that obligation if we say a student can get his or her degree in two years, we need to do all we can to make sure the structure is in place for that to happen,” she said. “So if you need 60 hours for a degree, we need to make sure students know that means 15 credit hours a semester.”
Another component of the College’s QEP was advising.
“Advising was de-centralized and set up by division, allowing advisers to be in closer communication with faculty and improving the student experience,” Cook said.
Dr. Jeannetta Hollins, who joined the College in October 2019 as director of Advising, said that is important.
“Because of (an adviser’s) proximity to the faculty, to the division, there is that collaboration and communication about the program,” she said, adding it also brings consistency because students know whom to go to with questions and concerns.
There was another good number in regard to the most up-to-date completion rates: When considering a more traditional group of college students (those who enter at age 20 or younger and consistently enroll with a full-time schedule), Thomas Nelson students graduate at a higher rate (75%) than the national average (67) for community colleges.
What that tells us, said Felker, is “if you’re able to commit to us to come and enroll as you would in a four-year institution, you’re likely to succeed at a very high rate.”