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People, Process and Technology: How Community Colleges are Improving Graduation and Completion Rates with the Automated Degree and Certificate Evaluator

People, Process and Technology: How Community Colleges are Improving Graduation and Completion Rates with the Automated Degree and Certificate Evaluator

Key Points:

1.  Issues of economics and equity are leading state-level policy makers to implement measures aimed at improving community college graduation and completion rates.

2.  The long-standing practice of forcing students to submit a petition to receive a degree or certificate has been identified as a significant barrier to graduation and completion.

3.  Community Colleges can leverage the data already maintained in the ERP and SIS to automate the award process without adding to their administrative burden.

4.  Automation works best when strong change management strategies are part of the implementation process.

5.  Community colleges that have implemented an automated solution have seen the number of degrees and certificates awarded increase by as much as 20 percent year-over-year.


As state governments seek to help drive economic recovery in 2021, many are intensifying recent efforts to boost graduation and completion rates at America’s community colleges.

Policy makers see that college graduates earn as much as $30,000 a year more than their counterparts with just a high school diploma. They see a skills gap that left seven million jobs unfilled in the United States in 2020. They see six-year community college graduation and completion rates that continue to hover around 40 percent. And they see those figures drop to 35.7 percent and 27.5 percent for Latin X and black students, respectively.

As such, state boards of community college trustees are now increasingly tying public funding to improved student outcomes, even as America’s community colleges manage the ten percent drop in enrollment and tuition that accompanied the pandemic. They see America’s community colleges as ground zero in the fight for economic security and equity in the United States – and are asking institutions to do more to ensure that students who enroll complete their course of study in timely fashion.

Allan Hancock College: Nearly Doubling Degrees and Certificates Awarded

Allan Hancock College is a public community college that serves approximately 11,500 students a semester in California’s Santa Barbara County. It is consistently ranked as one of the five best community colleges in the state and one of the top 120 community colleges in the nation. Its strong reputation is rooted in superior student service and a steadfast commitment to ensuring students get to completion with a degree or certificate in hand.

Still, like most community colleges and four-year institutions over the last decade, Allan Hancock has been driven to do more to improve graduation and completion rates in recent years. Local economies across the country need more college graduates, and state governments are increasingly looking to community colleges to provide them. In California, for example, the State Board of Community College Trustees has implemented a Student-Centered Funding Formula that funnels resources to institutions with stronger student outcomes.

As such, Allan Hancock has been doubling down on what it does best for much of the last decade – counseling and advising to ensure students find and stay on the path to completion. But in the spring of 2018, it identified a barrier to graduation and completion that it hadn’t yet addressed: the long-standing practice of forcing students to submit an official petition to receive a degree or certificate. It turns out that many students didn’t know that this requirement existed. Some didn’t even know when they had accrued enough credits to fulfill it.

Allan Hancock needed a way to automatically award a student who had completed his or her course of study. Moreover, it needed a way to automate that process so that the burden didn’t fall on a student services team that was already doing so much.

That’s when it turned to Ferrilli to customize an Automated Degree and Certificate Evaluator – a software solution that would help Hancock students get the awards they had earned while empowering advisors and counselors to spend less time evaluating progress and more time helping students chart their course to completion.

In the fall of 2019, Hancock College began leveraging the data already in its enterprise resource planning and student information systems to:

·   Send auto-generated alerts to students when they are nearing completion of a degree or certificate.

·   Offer students the option to opt out if that outcome is not part of their academic plan.

·   Proactively award degrees and certificates to eligible students.

·   And even students an electronic version of their diploma that can be shared with prospective employers or on professional social media platforms.

Of course, implementing the software itself is only half the battle. The heavier lift is in winning the buy-in and investment of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who must accept and embrace a new way of doing business. Simply put, innovation is always a change management exercise – and in this case, it’s one that Allan Hancock executed brilliantly by emphasizing careful planning, consistent communication, and design thinking throughout the entire process.

Laying the Groundwork for Change

First, Hancock College demonstrated a keen understanding that you never get a second chance to make a first impression – so, it’s of the utmost importance that a new solution (and the new processes that accompany it) work from Day One. As such, Allan Hancock never bit off more than it could chew, utilizing a tiered implementation process and phased rollout approach.

Phase One would see the system serve students working only with credits earned at Hancock College; Phase Two would add credits from the military (a priority for an institution that serves numerous students from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base); and Phase Three would add transfer credits from other institutions. This kind of planning and prioritization made for a smooth rollout free of the glitches that too often impact users’ initial experiences.

As of this writing, the institution is the midst of Phase Two. But by taking steady approach, it is meeting and surpassing user expectations and already driving the desired bottom-line results (as we will see below).

Second, Hancock College encouraged students, staff, faculty, and administrators to get behind the effort by involving them from the start. The first step of the implementation process involved discussions with professionals in IT, Admissions and Records, Transcript Evaluation, Advising and Counseling, Public Affairs, and other departments as well. Allan Hancock took the time to gauge these vital constituencies on the student experience they wanted to deliver and the back-end business processes that would get them there. This not only resulted in a more efficient and effective enterprise architecture, it ensured there were no curveballs or surprises along the way.

At the same time, Hancock College worked with faculty and students to ensure their voices were heard as well. The implementation team met with the Academic Senate, faculty counsels and committees, and the student government get their input and feedback on the proposed system. And once the approach was finalized and approved, the outreach kept going. The new program was communicated broadly on the Allan Hancock website to ensure that everyone knew what to expect. And, of course, comprehensive training began for all staff that would be required to master use of the software and execution of the processes it would enable.

Finally, Hancock College put the icing on the cake with design thinking techniques that put the needs of students first. It took the time to assess, how students would want to interact with the system (step by step), the actions they would want to take, the tasks they would prefer others to handle, and the ultimate outcomes they would desire. The result is a student experience that diminishes administrative tasks while leaving the student in control of his or her academic destiny.

How it Works

The process starts with outreach to students that can earn a degree or certificate that semester if they take the right classes. They are informed that they will be awarded the credential automatically if those credits are fulfilled and are encouraged to see an advisor or counselor if changes to their course plan are needed. They are referred to an FAQ page on the website if they have general questions. They are also provided a deadline for opting out if the degree or certificate in question is not part of their objective (the fact that only 10 students in total opted out speaks to the success of the rollout).

Then, once the coursework is completed, the system automatically evaluates each student’s progress and awards are generated and disseminated as appropriate. A technology partnership with Parchment ensures that students receive electronic copies in addition to their mailed degrees and certificates – which many post to their LinkedIn profiles and keep on hand to share with recruiters and prospective employers.

The Results

To date, the results have been astounding:

·   Between the fall of 2019 and summer of 2020, 470 degrees and certificates were auto awarded to Hancock College students who may not have received them otherwise.

·   Importantly, 299 of those degrees went to Latin X students at a time when institutions everywhere are striving to infuse more equity into positive student outcomes.

·   Overall, these figures helped Hancock College improve from 1,071 degrees and certificates awarded in 2019 to 1,301 in 2020.

·       Given that it awarded approximately 700 in 2011, Hancock College has now nearly doubled the number of awards it confers annually in just ten years.

And what does all this mean for Santa Barbara County and the state of California, which is pushing its community college so hard for results? Given that Hancock College graduates earn $9,500 more on average than their counterparts with just high school diploma, and that there are now 600 more graduates each year than there used to be – that’s another $5,700,000 added to the local economy each year, just from Hancock College graduates alone.

Best of all, similar results are being achieved at other institutions that have implemented the Automated Degree and Certificate Evaluator:

·   One institution granted more than 60 certificates to students who did not know they had earned one.

·   Another institution saw a 70 percent increase in certificates awarded in just the first year after implementation.

·   And a community college system awarded 500 additional credentials in just the first term after implementation – on only one of its three campuses.

By eliminating just one barrier to student success, Allan Hancock College and institutions like it are making an outsized impact in the lives of thousands of students and the communities they call home. Equally important, they are providing a template that other institutions can follow as future funding and enrollments increasingly hinge on their ability to help students get to completion and achieve their goals.

Dr. Kevin Walthers, President of Allan Hancock College, on the Automated Degree and Certificate Evaluator:

“We were missing those students who didn’t understand the process or didn’t realize they’d earned a credential. Now those students are receiving the benefits of their hard work – and you can’t overstate the impacts on equity, on first-generation students, and on our local economy. When our graduates earn on average $9,200 more than their peers with just a high school diploma, that’s another $15 million in wages for our community each year.”