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Learning from Evaluation: Lessons from the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative

By Patricia Steele
HigherEd Insight


Strong organizations understand the importance of evaluating their programs and use the findings from those evaluations to shape current and future work and also leverage new funding.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has worked on two projects focused on adult learners and used the results of the evaluation of the first to inform the implementation and evaluation of the second. The Plus 50 Initiative (2008-2011) worked with community colleges to develop innovative programs serving learners age 50 and over, with a focus on workforce training and preparing for new careers. The Plus 50 Completion Strategy, a four-year project that began in 2010, works with community colleges and focuses on degree and certificate completion for plus 50 students, especially those with prior college credits.

AACC conducted a thorough evaluation of its Plus 50 Initiative that demonstrates the impact of the project. Now the organization is using the results of that evaluation to shape its Plus 50 Completion Strategy and the evaluation of this new project.

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The findings from the Plus 50 Initiative evaluation guided the structure of the Plus 50 Completion Strategy. AACC used findings from the evaluation of their initial work to shape their second project. For example, the evaluation found that students over 50 wanted short-term courses to gain credentials, not traditional two-year degrees. Students also wanted flexible course schedules and needed computer skill training focused on the needs of older students. AACC included these concepts as program components in the RFP inviting colleges to participate in the Plus 50 Completion Strategy and wrote them into the resulting grant agreements.

Listening to stakeholders helps shape a successful initiative. AACC learned from the initiatives that evaluations need to include a focus on listening to stakeholders to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what they need for success. The initial Plus 50 Initiative evaluation gathered satisfaction information from students, program directors, and other key players. Initiative staff learned that Plus 50 students need help in finding a direction to pursue in college; as a result advising became an important part of the program. Program directors said that when faculty are trained on older students’ specific learning needs and styles, students are more successful, so the Plus 50 Completion Strategy includes a faculty training component.

Evaluation helped the Plus 50 Initiative articulate effective practice standards to guide program development and implementation. AACC staff, evaluators, and program directors used the evaluation results to collaboratively establish eight standards of excellence for Plus 50 programs. These standards are the key drivers for successful projects.

Findings from the Plus 50 Initiative evaluation helped AACC determine what successful marketing looks like. The evaluation found that the most effective marketing is having a Plus 50 student tell others about their success. Based on this information, AACC developed a YouTube channel featuring students, teachers, and employers involved in the Plus 50 Initiative to market to their target population.

AACC used their Plus 50 Initiative evaluation experience to shape the Plus 50 Completion Strategy evaluation. Evaluators and AACC Plus 50 staff sat down with grantees to determine the least-burdensome way to collect the data needed to conduct the new evaluation. Together they determined that grantees would complete data workbooks. The workbooks include templates, worksheets, example sheets, and other resources to make logging data easier and more comparable across grantee sites. Because the Plus 50 Completion Strategy evaluation budget is smaller than that for the initial evaluation, evaluators are not able to collect satisfaction data themselves. That information proved valuable in the first evaluation, so they devised strategies for grantees to collect some satisfaction data on their own.

Evaluation has allowed AACC and its grantees to leverage additional funding. AACC Plus 50 staff report that providing solid evaluation findings was one of the key factors in receiving funding from the Lumina Foundation and the Deerbrook Charitable Trust for Plus 50 Completion efforts. In addition, grantees have used evaluation findings to convince their leadership to institutionalize Plus 50 programs on their campuses. For example, some grantees were able to show that Plus 50 students provide their community colleges with a ready source of customers.

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What have you learned from your program evaluation? Has evaluation impacted the way you do business?

Note: HigherEd Insight serves as the independent evaluator for Lumina Foundation's adult college completion strategy.

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