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With national spotlight on community colleges, HCC wins two big grants

TAMPA — Hillsborough Community College on Tuesday celebrated winning two big grants aimed at increasing graduation rates.

A $3.15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will support resources and strategies tailored to help Hispanic students, who make up 27 percent of the student body on HCC's Dale Mabry Campus.

And a $1.5 million private grant which will pay for a four-year pilot program to help low-income students prepare for and pass college math. At HCC, like other community colleges, math is a stumbling block for many students.

"We're creating pathways for people to be rewarded if they perform well," HCC president Ken Atwater said. "We hope this will be a program we can replicate."

HCC's grants come as community colleges are getting increased attention both nationwide and in Tampa Bay.

Last week, as the White House held its first summit ever on community colleges, President Obama unveiled a new partnership to help match community college graduates with open jobs in the private sector.

Meanwhile, presidents from HCC, St. Petersburg College, Pasco-Hernando Community College and the University of South Florida are talking about better coordinating their efforts to meet students' needs.

Atwater, St. Petersburg College president Bill Law, Pasco-Hernando president Katherine Johnson and USF president Judy Genshaft met for dinner at the Tampa Club on Sept. 20 to talk about working together.

One outcome could be a collaborative effort to make information available to students about the options available to them, Law said.

Another could be a bay area alliance that applies jointly for some of the $34.8 million in community college grant money announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week.

The Gates grant aims to help to increase community college graduation rates.

Citing the latest federal data, the foundation noted that 22 percent of first-time-in-college, full-time community college students graduate with associate's degrees within three years. For black and Hispanic students, the graduation rates are 14 and 17 percent, respectively.

At Tampa Bay area community colleges, the overall numbers are slightly better: about 30 percent at HCC and St. Petersburg College, and 27 percent at Pasco-Hernando.

But college administrators say that, especially when compared to four-year universities, a community college's graduation rate is hardly a one-size-fits-all number.

That's largely because most community college students don't fit the first-time-in-college, full-time student model that the rate measures.

At St. Petersburg College, for example, that model describes only about 10 percent of the student body. Only a third attend college full-time. Instead, many community college students go part-time or are not enrolled in degree-seeking programs.

Many are older, or attend while they work, or have children, or all three. And many complete their studies, but transfer to a four-year school without receiving an associate's degree — a success that doesn't count toward a higher graduation rate.

"The students that we deal with are very unique," said Jesse Coraggio, St. Petersburg College's director for academic effectiveness and assessment.

HCC was the only college in Florida to receive the $1.5 million grant, mainly underwritten by the Helios Education Foundation, which has offices in Tampa and Phoenix.

The money will provide scholarships to students for completing three math courses and putting in a minimum number of hours at math tutoring centers along the way

More than 75 percent of HCC's incoming students are placed into developmental, or remedial, math after taking assessment tests. College officials say that avoiding or failing remedial math is a main reason students drop out of HCC.

The problem is made harder when students struggle financially or don't make use of academic support services.

So HCC has designed a pilot program to help students who start out in developmental math and progress to subsequent courses.

Along with the Helios Education Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, which were founded by hedge fund financier and philanthropist George Soros, will help pay for the program. A third nonprofit, MDRC, will help with technical support and measure the program's success.

The program will provide performance-based scholarships and math tutoring to 750 low-income students who take and pass a sequence of three courses with at least a 2.0: the highest level of developmental math, transitional algebra, then the first level of college math. Students also must visit a math tutoring center at least five times for a total of at least five hours.

Sara Adams of Ruskin said the scholarship money will help her buy books, something that's not covered by her Pell grant.

Adams, who started college at age 39 to study accounting, said she appreciated the help with algebra.

"It's starting to make a lot more sense now," she said.

With national spotlight on community colleges, HCC wins two big grants 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 12:48am]

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