National program making local impact

By Aashka Dave

A 13-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Terrence Whitehead returned to college hoping to find a job in the diesel field.

“I’m in college to get a better career,” said Whitehead, 41, who is pursuing a degree in business management at Atlanta Technical College. “I learned being in the military that a lot of our jobs don’t transfer into civilian [jobs]. I wanted an education for something I could go to work with right away and be trained for the job.”

Community colleges play a pivotal role in preparing a significant portion of the U.S. workforce for jobs, educating half of all undergraduate students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Yet, 40 percent of community college students — particularly low income students and students of color — aren’t prepared for the demands of college.

This is where Achieving the Dream comes in.

An independent nonprofit founded in 2010, Achieving the Dream describes itself as an innovative reform network that has served 3.8 million community college students. The Maryland-based organization partners with over 200 community colleges around the country to help students succeed. In Georgia, 14 colleges (see box) have worked with Achieving the Dream since 2011.

Community college is “the portal to higher education for low-income students, and any student who needs to get off to a strong start,” said Carol Lincoln, senior vice president of Achieving the Dream.

In 2020, two thirds of U.S. jobs will require some education beyond high school. Finding students to fill those jobs is essential, but will only happen if community colleges are accessible, Lincoln said.

That need underscores Achieving the Dream’s aims for the next five years. The organization hopes to create institutional change at colleges, refining the services and resources provided to students. Achieving the Dream consults with schools, often by analyzing school data and suggesting potential changes to be more success-oriented, and by facilitating partnerships between local businesses and the colleges.

Over the three years that Achieving the Dream has partnered with Atlanta Tech, the college has gone through a cross campus cultural change, with student success in mind. Graduation rates (in terms of credentials earned) have increased by 43 percent, according to Alvetta Peterman Thomas, Atlanta Tech’s president.

“Our culture has changed because we now have people who are more in tune and engaged,” Peterman Thomas said.

After looking at graduation rates and where students usually face challenges, the college restructured its advising process and learning support programs. Many of Atlanta Tech’s students are first-generation college attendees who are unfamiliar with advising processes. Now, a set advisement sheet delineates degree requirements. Atlanta Tech has also rolled certification programs into overall degree programs.

“We know that life happens,” Peterman Thomas said. “Smaller programs are embedded in larger ones, so if a student has to exit because of a ‘life happens,’ they can exit with a credential. And that improves the success of students.”

The Student

Chasica Bankston is a first-year radiography student at Athens Technical College, which was the first Georgia college to participate in Achieving the Dream, starting in 2011. Bankston, who is working on a beginning and intermediate algebra sequence that stemmed from Athens Tech’s involvement with Achieving the Dream, chatted about the experience.

Q: Why did you choose to go to Athens Tech?

A: It’s local, available and a very flexible schedule type of school … which was absolutely important because I have a young daughter, and I work also.

Q: How has Achieving the Dream affected you?

A: It really sped up the process of me graduating quicker than I thought I would. Plus it’s just more of an advanced way to learn [about] things that you probably haven’t touched base on in years: factoring out, equations and math modules. It’s just a very advanced guided way of how you can get your answer.

Q: Can you talk specifically about your experience in your math courses at Athens Tech?

A: It went by really quick, and I guess [this was] due to the fact that it was an at- your-pace [course]. So if you were to work on [coursework] everyday and quiz every day and just work hard and pay attention, you’d be out of the class before you knew it. And when you’re out of that class, you’re able to go on to the next class and have an opportunity to finish that one as well.

Q: Do you have any advice for other college students?

A: Never give up just when you think that you don’t have enough time, enough knowledge, enough of anything. You just never know what you have until you actually try. And once you get that little ounce of energy to actually try, you never know how far you can go with it.

—Aashka Dave

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