Decision makers at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., have 140 ways to evaluate school programs and campus policies.

That’s because Celeste M. Schwartz, the college’s vice president of information technology, and her department have trained Montgomery deans how to create more than 100 assessment reports–taking into account factors such as enrollment, gender, race, and GPA–that affect funding for existing programs and the campus’s newest initiatives.

"They can drill down to the finest level of detail," said Schwartz, vice president of IT at the college since 2001. "We’re always assessing ourselves and looking for ways to make things better, because all decision making here is based on data. It’s part of the institution’s culture."

The Montgomery IT department was recognized in a national ranking this year for its student and faculty service , winning first place among community colleges with more than 7,500 students–up from fourth place in 2007, fifth in 2005, and second in 2003.

The tech-savvy community college rankings examined campus’s weather and security alerts, online admissions, access to student grades, and information infrastructure and security, among other areas.

Schwartz, one of two women to take computer science courses at Montgomery County Community College in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said the meticulous collection and assessment of student and faculty data has been a strong focus of Montgomery officials in recent years. She said a thorough examination of campus data encouraged the college to launch a summer math bridge program–two weeks of intensive training to bring college freshmen up to math proficiency–earlier this year.

"All our improvements are based on examining the facts," said Schwartz, 57, a Montgomery graduate who earned her master’s degree in computer sciences from Villanova University. "When you have the data that support [whether] something is or isn’t working, you want to use [this information] and find ways to make it better."

Training deans to use the latest web-based assessment tools, she said, has trimmed the number of questions that usually pour into the school’s IT office.

"They don’t have to call and ask for help, and that’s tremendously empowering," Schwartz said, adding that officials can simply "drag and drop" pieces of data on their desktop to evaluate a course’s effectiveness, for instance: "You name it, they can look at it."

The Montgomery County Community College campus is Wi-Fi accessible, and students can use an online catalog of library books to research for exams and class projects. The school lends laptops to students and has an updated library blog that offers research tips for students struggling to pinpoint the right resources, Schwartz said.

"We have an extremely engaging environment," she said.

Montgomery, like an increasing number of community colleges, has a text-message alert system that students can opt out of at any time during the school year. During the busiest weeks for student advisors and counselors, IT officials dole out pagers and beepers so students don’t have to wait in long, winding lines.

Montgomery’s lead in IT progress is nothing new, Schwartz said. In the late 1970s, the school began automating administrative processes–years before most community colleges made major investments in computer systems that could streamline the tedious recording of campus finances and student records.

"We’ve been ahead of the curve for a long time now," she said.

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Montgomery County Community College