Grant-Funded Study Helps Prepare Connecticut’s 12 Community Colleges for Consolidation

About 75 percent of graduates in 2017-18 from the 17 institutions that make up the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system were employed within three months after graduation. But less than half of students who started a degree at one of those institutions finished there within four years, according to data provided by the state system’s Office of Research and System Effectiveness

At Eastern Connecticut State University, for example, just 45 percent complete a degree within four years and another 10 percent complete a degree after transferring to another institution. 

In an effort to increase the number of students directly entering the workforce, as well as the graduation rate of each college and university in the system, the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation awarded Connecticut State Colleges and Universities a $350,000 grant to evaluate how well programs across the 12 community colleges, four state universities and Charter Oak Online College are preparing their students for life after graduation.

For students to stay with a program and graduate, they need to feel like they are learning skills that will truly help them succeed in a career that they will enjoy, said Ralph Wolff, founder and president of The QA Commons, a California-based startup that helps universities and colleges ensure that their programs provide students with the skills they need to succeed in a first job.

“CSCU is committed to better preparing graduates of our programs for a lifetime of engaged employment,” said CSCU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Jane Gates. “By working with The QA Commons, we will empower our faculty with employability best practices that will give our increasingly diverse student population an advantage as they enter a transformed workplace.”

More than half of the grant, or $200,000, will be used to pay for the services of The QA Commons. 

“We focus on the essential employability qualities that students are most lacking according to employers,” Wolff said.

The QA Commons will be assessing the teaching of eight skills across 24 programs selected by CSCU: communication, thinking and problem solving, inquiry, collaboration, adaptability, principles and ethics, responsibility and professionalism and learning.

“What we see is employers hiring on technical skills, but firing or not promoting due to a lack of soft skills,” Wolff said. “From our experience graduates often learn the skills in the classroom, but then have no experience applying them in a work setting.”

Since The QA Commons was founded in 2016, Wolff said the most effective and successful programs are the ones that are engaged with employers, have a strong alumni network, give students the opportunities to put their skills to use in internships or co-ops and are transparent about the career paths and salaries of graduates from their programs.

“This moment in history demonstrates the pressing need for higher education to better prepare students for employment,” Wolff said. “Connecticut is the second state to work with The QA Commons to invest in its future workforce by preparing students for employability. We expect demand for graduates prepared for career success will result in more colleges and universities making this investment. In the face of the many dislocations caused by COVID-19, demonstrating these skills will be more important than ever.”

Providing internship or experiential learning in each major has not been a system-wide requirement, according to Kenneth Kluznik, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at CSCU, although many of the nationally accredited programs, including nursing, do currently require in-the-field hours.

Although The QA Commons will only be working with a limited number of programs — including the liberal arts bachelor’s degrees and advanced manufacturing associate degrees — Kluznik said that the goal is to use what has been learned in these programs to improve every program in the state college and university system.

“Even though we know our general education program really addresses these areas, we do not have a systematic way to assure that. We need to build this into our program review process,” Kluznik said. “Right now, it is all done on a program-by-program basis, we need an effective way to do it and repeat it for every program.”

Wolff said that establishing a more uniform method for teaching assessment will also help departments save and replicate what is working well at each school, as all 12 of Connecticut’s community colleges are consolidated into a single institution.

Assessments of the 24 programs will begin in the fall of 2020 and will examine the inclusion of employable skills in both remote and in-person education.

“We will be looking at all online programming as well, especially in the era of COVID,” said Wolff. “Students are going to need to learn how to interview in an online setting and work remotely efficiently, as well as to email in a professional manner. This is an adaptable skill set that I think all graduates are going to need in the future.”