Rationing for community colleges

The days of the so-called professional student at California’s community colleges may be coming to an end.  After nearly a year of studying ways to improve graduation and transfer rates, with dwindling resources, the 21-member Student Success Task Force on community colleges is considering changes to some of the historic tenets of the nation’s largest public college system.

For example, the standard practice of using state funds to subsidize all students, including those with no apparent career goals and those dabbling in art, music, and other non-degree courses, is poised to take its place in history class. Students not on the academic or career track would also be sent to the back of the registration line.

“You’re no longer a continuing student if you signed up for 100 credits and only completed 30,” said Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community College system. “In this day and age, when the money is scarce, we’re really rationing our seats, so we’ve got to recognize those who are serious.  We’re not against lifelong learning but those students are not our priorities.”

Recommendations get public airing

Earlier this week, State Senator Carol Liu (D-Pasadena) held a hearing on the task force’s draft recommendations before her Subcommittee on Education Policy Research. Liu authored the 2010 bill, SB 1143, which called for the panel to be created at the start of this year.Task Force Draft Recommendations

Liu had seen an advance copy of the report, but was still struck by how substantial it is, said Suzanne Reed, the senator’s chief of staff and a member of the task force. Liu was also very interested in hearing about concerns with some of the recommendations, said Reed.

One controversial issue surrounds giving community colleges more flexibility in how they spend funds currently designated for programs like educating prospective foster parents and career technical education. “The concern is that if you put that in the flex, the colleges could choose to use the money for something else,” said Reed. If the categorical flex given to K-12 school districts is any indication, then the colleges will almost certainly redirect the funds.

There’s also push back against a proposal that would give the Chancellor’s office more authority, as well as a recommendation for performance-based funding, essentially allotting money based on student outcomes instead of funding based solely on enrollment.

“One of the big issues here is that a lot of this is a cultural change,” said Reed. “It’s a reorientation of how people feel about the delivery of education to community college students.”

Billions spent on dropouts

Until a few years ago, the goal had been to get more students into college, and community colleges were the front lines of that effort. But a recent confluence of reports warns that states are spending billions of dollars on students who drop out or languish for years in a series of unrelated, unfocused courses.

“We’ve been on the access agenda for 20 years or more now, but haven’t figured out how to get as many students out the door when they walk in,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and author of “The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges.”

State spending on community college students who drop out. (Source: American Institutes for Research) Click to enlarge
State spending on community college students who drop out. (Source: American Institutes for Research) Click to enlarge

There are more than six million community college students – an increase of about 25 percent over the last decade – and about 20 percent never return after their first year of school, according to the report.  AIR followed a cohort of students over five years and found those dropouts cost taxpayers about $4 billion in state funding and local, state, and federal grants. California’s share is about $130 million.

“Part of the problem is that we are only beginning to take this problem seriously, and as a result our playbook for fixing this problem is pretty much empty,” said Schneider.

Agreement on solutions

It’s no coincidence that California and the AIR are both tackling this issue at the same time.  Schneider credits President Obama with elevating college to a level not seen since the Sputnik crisis, and for much the same reason, to reignite America’s competitiveness.

“Already, we’ve mobilized business leaders to train 10,000 American engineers a year, by providing company internships and training.  Other businesses are covering tuition for workers who learn new skills at community colleges.  And we’re going to make sure the next generation of manufacturing takes root not in China or Europe, but right here, in the United States of America,” said the President last month in a speech before a joint session of Congress.

The Student Success Task Force has developed 22 recommendations to improve graduation and transfer rates, and over the next few months, the panel will solicit feedback on its proposals from community college faculty and administrators, business leaders and the public.* Then the plan goes to the community college Board of Governors. Even if they agree, some changes will require legislative approval, and some will have to wait until the state’s economy improves.

Chancellor Scott said there are programs that can be implemented right away, such as making better of use of technology to advise students; and there are reforms already approved, including SB 1440, a 2010 bill that creates an associate degree for transfer that must be accepted by California State University without requiring students to take additional classes.   And Gov. Brown just signed a bill to develop a common placement exam for community colleges.

Each change makes incremental improvements in the success rate said Chancellor Scott.  “We’ll never have 100 percent completion, but we can do a lot to ensure the completion rate is higher.”

* Three town hall meetings are scheduled.  October 27th in Los Angeles, November 2nd in Fresno and November 16th in Oakland.  They’ll also be broadcast live on the web.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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