How do you measure success?

That question has been on the minds of administrators at Trident Technical College long before the release a few weeks ago of "The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges" report from the Gates Foundation-funded American Institutes for Research.

The report focused heavily on first-time freshmen who don't return for the second year, which isn't an entirely fair measure of the technical college population.

Success for one student, as college President Mary Thornley points out, would be successful completion of three air-conditioning repair courses so he can get a job.

According to the report, that guy would be listed as a failure, because he didn't get a two-year degree.

Broad-based approach

Trident serves a large and diverse student population. And leaders there knew before that report that there were some areas where they could do better.

That's why they've placed a renewed emphasis on math skills for all students, shaped a course that introduces students to college life as a whole, and joined the national Achieve the Dream program.

"Any college that becomes a part of Achieve the Dream program ... you have to be willing to step in front of the mirror and strip naked and look at all the flaws and see what you're dealing with," Thornley said.

They focus on five key areas: development course studies, progress in curriculum-level course, English comp, as well as retention and completion rates, according to Cathy Almquist, director of institutional research. Trident is one of only four schools in the state that is willing to undergo the level of scrutiny and focus that the program demands.

Core skills

Two years ago, administrators looked at student success in math, and realized it wasn't where it needed to be. "If a student can't do math, they're not going to be successful," Thornley said.

Incidentally, math is also the area where students coming in to Trident are the least prepared, across the board. Last fall Trident added computer assisted instruction in its algebra sequence, giving students access to a computer-based way to do their homework. The college is encouraged by the preliminary results.

The school has also created spaces called math cubes at all three campuses, places where students at different levels can meet and talk about math. Instructors volunteer to be on hand as well, maybe spending part of their office hours in the cube. "It's not formalized tutoring, but it's a place where you can walk in and say 'I can't get No. 3 on my homework,' " Almquist said.

And then there's the college skills course.

"Our data shows that for first-time freshmen, 91.4 percent are not ready for completely college-level work," Thornley said. So the course introduces students to what college is, and to skills they can use at any college.

So whether that means training students for jobs or getting students ready for a four-year school, Trident is there for them.

That sure sounds like success.