I was already working, and I figured, ‘Why stop my life just to let my education go forward? Why can’t I do both?’” This testimonial from a student at Columbus State Community College (CSCC) gets to the heart of the Exact Track program that we launched three years ago on our Delaware, Ohio, campus. The program was specifically designed for a unique group of adult learners—people with very busy lives who tend to be working full time, raising families, participating in various community organizations, and wanting to better position themselves to further their careers.
Like most community colleges, CSCC has long-standing relationships with four-year institutions that guarantee for our graduates both enrollment and the transfer of every credit toward a bachelor’s degree. One of those institutions—Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio—also collaborates with us on Exact Track, a program that enables students to complete both an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in 3 1/2 years. Although Franklin University is located downtown, about a 40-minute drive away from CSCC’s Delaware campus, Exact Track allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree without having to make that time-consuming drive.
The key to this accelerated program is structure. All the individual classes and the overall schedule are mapped out in advance. This predetermined and predictable approach makes it easier for adult learners to balance their education with other aspects of their busy lives. Each semester, there’s one face-to-face course—which always meets on Tuesday evenings—and one online course. Once accepted into the Exact Track program, students don’t have to worry about registering for classes or juggling a different schedule every semester. Everything happens seamlessly, and they move from one semester to the next with the same cohort for support.
For the first two years, Exact Track students take Columbus State classes, taught by Columbus State faculty, on our campus. They then transition to Franklin University courses taught on our campus by Franklin University faculty. Those who complete the program receive an associate degree in applied science in business management from Columbus State and a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and entrepreneurship from Franklin University. When compared to attending Franklin University solely for four years, Exact Track students save between $35,000 and $40,000 on earning a bachelor’s degree. Exact Track tuition, which does not change throughout the duration of the student’s participation in the program, also includes the cost of all books and campus parking.
A Learning Curve
Students who apply for the program must be highly motivated because they take nearly back-to-back courses all year, including 10 weeks of instruction during the summer months. Our first cohort began in spring 2016 with 28 students, 10 of whom graduated from CSCC, of which eight continued with Franklin University. In 2019, five members of this first cohort will graduate from Franklin University with their bachelor’s degrees.
The second cohort was slightly larger. It started with 32 students, 17 of whom graduated from CSCC. Again, eight of those students decided to continue their education at Franklin University and remain enrolled. The next two cohorts, however, registered lower enrollments with each numbering less than 10 students. This decline prompted us to rethink our process and put more student supports in place. We conducted an assessment and convened focus groups with the remaining members of the first two cohorts to learn what we could do differently to better serve the students. Based on their feedback, we’ve made the following changes to the Exact Track model:
- Establish prerequisites. Each cohort comprises adult learners who may have been out of school for a period of time; some have attended college before and others haven’t. To ensure that these diverse learners have some common experiences, knowledge, and general college readiness, we introduced three prerequisite courses in English, math, and business management. Students must complete the three courses—which we offer every semester—before they can apply for Exact Track.
- Vary the length of courses. Initially, all spring and fall courses ran for eight weeks, but some subjects proved too information-intensive to be manageable for our students in that time frame. In response, we adjusted how the curriculum is laid out and expanded the more rigorous courses—including accounting and statistics—to cover two, eight-week terms.
- Incorporate touch points. CSCC has always offered tutoring, and now we ensure that service is available on Tuesday evenings until the time the Exact Track courses begin. We designed an orientation specifically for Exact Track enrollees that emphasizes the importance of time management and developing study partnerships and collaborations within the cohort. Periodically, CSCC schedules optional sessions that are open to all cohorts, enabling both new and veteran Exact Track students to discuss their experiences, share advice, and network.
In addition, we designated an adviser to track the progression of Exact Track students from one semester to the next, and to periodically touch base via phone and e-mail. Another adviser, who is employed by Franklin University but based at CSCC, assists students with the transition to bachelor’s degree courses, manages their transcripts, and streamlines the transfer of academic credits and any financial aid. Recently, CSCC added a new coordinator position. This person manages Exact Track recruitment, collaboration with admissions and workforce staff, and student engagement.
- Celebrate the transition. CSCC instituted a pinning ceremony to mark students’ completion of the associate degree program. Our faculty actively participate in the ceremony, which recognizes the students’ accomplishments and encourages them to remain dedicated to reaching their education and career goals.
- Maintain marketing momentum. After the first Exact Track cohort began its coursework, efforts to promote the program decreased—and so did enrollment in the next two cohorts. We recognized the need to consistently and intentionally market Exact Track to potential students and the businesses for which they work. CSCC hired a community liaison to meet with local employers—some of whom provide tuition reimbursement—and work closely with a member of CSCC’s admissions team and the Exact Track adviser on recruitment. We also hold monthly information sessions on campus that explain the program’s features, benefits, and admission requirements.
- Continually assess performance. A planning team—consisting of the Exact Track advisers, coordinator, and admissions staff—convenes weekly. At least once a year, various representatives of CSCC and Franklin University have a “meeting of the minds” to discuss what’s working with Exact Track and what needs improvement. The group includes faculty members as well as staff engaged in marketing, curriculum development, admissions, and testing.
Implementing these changes has strengthened the Exact Track program. For starters, enrollment in our most recent, fifth cohort rebounded to 17 students. In terms of demographics, we are attracting students from all over the county, not just our city, to the campus once a week. And several employers have contacted CSCC’s workforce development team about the possibility of bringing the Exact Track program on site for the benefit of their employees.
SUBMITTED BY Tina Diggs, interim dean of the Delaware Campus and Regional Learning Centers, Columbus State Community College, Columbus, Ohio.