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Getting underserved students to graduation wins Pasadena City College coveted prize nomination

Craig Clough | November 2, 2016

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Pasadena City College students (Photo: PCC website)

Pasadena City College students (Photo: PCC website)

A biology class that solves a murder mystery. Online maps of how to finish a degree. And a dogged determination to get underserved students across the graduation line.

These are some of the ways Pasadena City College is reaching record graduation rates and closing the achievement gap.

And now it is up for a prestigious prize.

After having a graduation/transfer rate high above the national average along with leading the way in degrees for minorities and low-income students, PCC was recently named one of 10 finalists for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The winner, which will be chosen in March, will receive a $1 million prize.

This the first time the school has been nominated for the award, which has been given out every two years since 2011. PCC’s effort to get nominated dates back to 2013 when Cynthia Olivo, the college’s vice president of Student Services, met with representatives from the Aspen Institute to find out why the school had not been nominated before.

“I had a meeting set up with them so I could ask about their metrics and why we were not making it. And so I learned a lot about their metrics. They are pretty tough,” Olivo said.

The award recognizes schools with a track record of making improvements in learning, graduation, workforce outcomes and equitable outcomes for all students, focusing on minorities and those from low-income backgrounds.

PCC was one of two California colleges to be named a finalist. The other was Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. Santa Barbara City College is the lone California college to win the award after taking the honor in 2013.

The college’s graduation/transfer last school year was 49 percent, above the national average of 39 percent. The school is also the top community college in the state in awarding associate degrees to minorities. It ranks No. 1 in the state and No. 13 in the nation in awarding associate degrees, and it has the second-highest transfer rate to a four-year university in the California Community College system.

Olivo said much of groundwork on the school’s achievements date to 2011-12 when it began work on a new educational master plan, with a top goal being to increase equity for its historically underserved students.

“We hired a consulting firm to come in and conduct focus groups with our faculty, staff, students, administration, board members, and also community-focused groups,” she said. “They went out to the seven cities we serve in our district and took notes on what does the community want from us, what do students, faculty and administrators want from us and basically compiled a strategic plan outlining what we wanted to do over the next 10 years.”

Eighty percent of PCC’s 34,000 students come from poverty, 76 percent are students of color and 43 percent are the first in their families to go to college. The size of PCC’s student body makes it the ninth-largest community college in the state and third-largest in Los Angeles County, according to

PCC’s district includes the city of Pasadena, which has a population of 137,000, and the surrounding communities of Arcadia, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, Rosemead, San Marino, Sierra Madre, South Pasadena, Temple City and a portion of El Monte. But Olivo also said the majority of its students come from outside its district, and many come from LA Unified.

“It’s a phenomenon we don’t completely understand. Sixty-four percent of our 5,500 incoming freshmen come from outside our district, with the majority from Los Angeles, in places like Eagle Rock, Highland Park, downtown LA and Boyle Heights,” Olivo said.

Aside from the high graduation/transfer rate and the success of PCC’s diverse student population, the Aspen prize also highlighted a program that fast-tracks graduation by providing priority registration to students who are only a few courses short of completing their degree.

“Pasadena City College has made incredible strides in closing the achievement gap for minority students, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Not only are PCC’s STEM programs dominated by Latino students, but women and first-generation students are also highly represented,” Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, said in a statement. “This reflects the college’s strong demonstrated commitment to making sure all students succeed both while in college and in promising careers after they graduate.”

Olivo also credited a few other programs with increasing student engagement at PCC. They include a biology class where students focus through the course of the semester on solving a murder mystery, a first-year experience program that serves 2,300 students per year and an online counseling program that advises students electronically and provides them a map on how to finish their degree.

“Students love (the biology class), and our data tells us the African-American and Latino students, they have really excelled. And that bio course, we have over 1,000 students who take it every fall. So it was a huge innovation at scale,” Olivo said.

Since implementing the educational master plan, Olivo said PCC has learned “that we need to work in a much more collaborative manner so that we can bring a lot of our successful services to scale for our 30,000 students. So that’s been what we’ve learned and that’s where we are at now. We are in the middle in innovating a lot of programs so that they will be available to all of our students.”

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