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Making Success a Given for Students

San Antonio College, 2021 Aspen Prize Winner

Candace Hooper-Ellison, 31, had been a stay-at-home mom without college ambitions when her husband lost his job. As Candace began looking for work to help support her family, she realized she would need a college degree to land a job. So, 10 years after graduating from high school, Candace enrolled in San Antonio College to study American Sign Language, and became the first in her family to go to college.

Candace was filled with doubts. She was worried about the cost of attending SAC and whether she was smart enough to succeed. However, during her first semester, Candace was placed in a required student success class, where her instructor called her “the most underachieving overachiever”: She finished all her work early and had good grades, but aimed only to get an associate degree. Her instructor helped build up her confidence and devise a plan not just to acquire her associate degree, but to reach higher.

San Antonio College, one of five colleges in the Alamo Colleges District, is full of students like Candace: older or first-generation college students who are supported from start to finish to accomplish what they came to do—and then some. SAC actively recruits specifically within its immediate environs, an area that is predominantly low-income and Hispanic, with low rates of educational attainment and high rates of unemployment. Four-fifths of students attend part time.

Other colleges might see these student characteristics as hindrances to strong completion outcomes, but in 2018, 48 percent of students who started atSAC graduated or transferred within three years, compared to the national average of 46 percent. The rate for students of color was nearly as strong, at 45 percent, compared to a national average of 37 percent.

A culture of care and attention

At SAC, there is a feeling of family, a tangible sense and concrete expectation that everyone in the community is responsible for students’ well-being, inside and outside the classroom.

“It’s been a village,” said Gregory Torres, 31, who went back to school to move beyond a low-wage position as a certified nursing assistant. After his first year at SAC, Gregory found himself on academic probation and lost his financial aid, but the college provided him with emergency funds that enabled him to pay tuition and stay enrolled. “Every time life told me to give up, SAC provided me with an opportunity to keep going,” he said. Motivated to not let down the people who had helped him, Gregory passed all his classes that semester, was never on academic probation again, and graduated this spring. “They believed in me and took a chance on me, so I believed in myself.”

“Every time life told me to give up, SAC provided me with an opportunity to keep going.”
— Gregory Torres
2021 SAC nursing graduate

SAC faculty get to know each and every student—not just their names but their interests, circumstances, and challenges. After Candace’s student success instructor motivated her to aim for a bachelor’s rather than an associate degree, she worked with her advisor to choose a major (criminology and criminal justice) and a transfer destination (Texas A&M) so that she can eventually become a court-certified sign language interpreter working in legal settings—a high-demand job with good pay.

The advising function, built on the systemwide AlamoADVISE model, is a highly structured process that pays off. SAC students are assigned to a professional advisor embedded within their academic program, and starting from orientation they are encouraged to select a program of study, each accompanied by a crystal-clear map of courses that will move them efficiently to a degree. Advisors stay with the relatively low 380 students in their caseload throughout their journey, meeting with them at mandatory checkpoints to update their degree plan, select a transfer destination, and provide other guidance according to a specific set of learning outcomes for advising.

Students also benefit from extremely specific transfer advising guides, which tell them every course they must take to transfer with junior standing in their major at one of 13 colleges and universities. Students who follow these guides will lose at most 3 of their 60 credit hours, or one course, at transfer. (Nationally, students lose on average 13 credits, on average, when they transfer.)

When Gregory started at SAC, he knew what degree he needed to progress in the medical field but didn’t know the steps to get there. His advisor helped him outline his academic plan, including which classes to take and when, helping him space out the most challenging courses so he wouldn’t get stuck taking them all in the same semester. “I came in with an idea and I left with a plan,” Gregory said. “The advisors empower you.”

Like all SAC students, Gregory and Candace meet with their advisor every semester to not just review their course selection, but also to make sure they are on track to complete their degree plan.

Inquiry, action, and improvement

A culture of caring has become a hallmark of excellent community colleges. What distinguishes SAC are the ways the caring culture is undergirded by an unusually robust culture of inquiry and action—a remarkable balance of head and heart. Faculty and staff are equipped to effectively educate and guide their students, with clear expectations, strong analytical systems, and a commitment to ongoing improvement.

Throughout the college, leaders, faculty, and staff constantly analyze whether students are getting what they need—whether it’s math knowledge, child care, or useful information about their transfer destination—and adapt programs to meet the needs of their diverse student body. This commitment to continuous improvement yields results: In just five years, SAC’s graduation and transfer rate increased by almost 20 percentage points.

The advisors who work with students like Candace and Gregory receive rigorous training that prepares them to understand the needs of diverse students, get students the information they need, and help them navigate systems. Gregory’s advisor is knowledgeable about the requirements to become a registered nurse and help him transfer to the University of Texas Health San Antonio; Candace’s has deep knowledge of the ASL department and transfer pathways. The advisors regularly receive data to pinpoint students who may be struggling and prioritize outreach to the students who need it the most. What’s more, advisors
and department leads use a scorecard to monitor whether their advising is effective, and quick assessments measure whether students are learning what they need to from advisors.

SAC’s data-based culture of improvement also extends to the classroom. Each semester, all faculty, including adjunct professors, review student success data from their own and their colleagues’ course sections, broken down by student characteristics such as race and ethnicity. Teams revisit instructional strategies when students struggle in key courses. Faculty with relatively low course success rates develop action plans for improvement, and may be mentored by a faculty member with a high success rate or moved to a course that’s a better fit. While the improvement measures are not punitive, faculty are held accountable for the success of their students.

This approach to collecting actionable data, analyzing it meticulously, and following that with action—all while understanding that each data point represents a human being struggling to improve their circumstances—exemplifies the culture and expectation at SAC that all individuals should take responsibility for the success of all students.

The “power of one”

That investment has a ripple effect. Since enrolling at SAC, Candace has convinced her husband to enroll, and they both will graduate this spring. Her mother, who hasn’t completed high school, is considering enrolling in SAC’s GED-Thru-College, a free program to not just get students their diploma but move them into college coursework, while Candace’s two teenagers want to attend SAC through dual enrollment at their high school. It’s a natural choice for her family, who have all spent a lot of time with Candace on the SAC campus. “It’s a place with a family feeling,” says Candace.

That kind of aspiration and success is infectious by design, according to Robert Vela, president of San Antonio College since 2014. “Our thought is that if you begin to experience excellence,” he said, “you begin to see it in instruction, you begin to see it in student services… you begin to want more. You begin to want it for yourself. You begin to demand it for your family.”

President Vela calls this the “power of one”: the idea that changing one person’s aspirations can change a whole family’s, which eventually pays dividends for a whole community. “That’s the power of one student making it, and understanding why it’s so important that they make it and graduate.” The individual and magnified impact that comes from attending SAC is why SAC ensures student success is not left to chance.