Remaking community colleges

After a year of monthly meetings, town hall gatherings, presentations to dozens of community colleges and stakeholder groups, and an online discussion, the twenty members of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force (SSTF) can unpack their suitcases. In Sacramento on Wednesday, the panel held its final session, debating and ultimately reaching accord on lingering disagreements. Now comes the really hard part: implementing the 22 recommendations for increasing graduation and transfer rates.

“I think it’s going to be a huge challenge,” said Task Force member Nancy Shulock, who has studied community colleges extensively as director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Sacramento State University. Shulock said the final report is a product of people from different perspectives spending months together in discussions and respecting each others’ passions. Task Force members also include community college presidents, professors, and counselors; students; elected officials; and business leaders.

Shulock is concerned that when the final report is released to the public, all that understanding will be lost on special interest groups. “Where you stand is influenced by where you sit,” she said.

Some of the folks making implementation decisions will be sitting in the state Capitol, specifically the senate and assembly. Legislative approval will be required for a few of the proposals. One that Community College Chancellor Jack Scott is fond of would create a stronger central office, more in line with the University of California and California State University. Right now, the Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is under the governor’s control. Scott can’t even appoint his own vice chancellors, let alone provide the statewide coordination that will be necessary to carry out the recommendations.

As the report notes, “the implementation of key recommendations in this report, such as aligning college readiness standards and assessment tools; improving the identification and dissemination of best practices; sharing longitudinal K-12 data; state and district goal setting; providing technical assistance for districts; and creating a student-oriented technology system all rely heavily on stronger and more coordinated state-level leadership.”

Ending era of professional students

Most of the recommendations can be approved by the Community Colleges Board of Governors or put into effect by the Chancellor’s Office as best practices. One of the more contentious proposals would give priority for registration and fee waivers to students who stay on track to earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year college.

Under this policy, students with 110 credits or more would be sent to the back of the registration line and would lose their Board of Governors’ fee waivers.

Some members questioned whether students should be penalized for a situation that may be out of their control. Task Force member Kevin Feliciano, president of the student senate for California Community Colleges, called it the most controversial recommendation on the student side. Without additional money to hire more counselors, he said students may not get enough guidance on which classes to take. Currently, there are anywhere from 900 to 1,200 students per counselor, and it can take weeks for a student to get an appointment.

“To a student who’s first generation college, just navigating the college system can be very challenging,” said Michelle Pilati, president of the academic senate. Pilati, who is not a member of the Task Force, sees it as an equity issue that could affect the neediest students. “We have the capacity issues of the counselors and capacity issues of the courses. We still have the financial limitations.”

For Chancellor Scott, capacity and funding issues are precisely why the carrot-and-stick approach is essential. Nearly 140,000 first-time students couldn’t get into a single course in the 2009-10 academic year because there wasn’t enough room for them, while some returning students were repeating classes and taking up seats in courses with no apparent plans to graduate.  And once they hit 100 units, there’s not much likelihood they will complete school, according to a report out of the University of Michigan.

Once a student reaches 100 units, the likelihood of earning an Associates Degree drops.  (source: Peter Riley Bahr, University of Michigan) click to enlarge
Once a student reaches 100 units, the likelihood of earning an Associates Degree drops. (source: Peter Riley Bahr, University of Michigan) click to enlarge

“This will signal to students that they can’t keep going forever,” said Scott. “It’s going to say to the student, you’ve got to get serious. We can’t allow students to become professional students when we can’t even get in our first-time students. There’s something wrong with that.”

Losing Class

Faced with $400 million in cuts this year, the Task Force also went into triage mode regarding what type of courses to continue offering. Colleges have already started eliminating some noncredit courses that were tailored to older adults, such as exercise classes and other lifelong learning programs.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon likened the situation to a hospital emergency room, where doctors have to prioritize patients. It’s not that some classes are worthless, said Cabaldon, but they’re not priorities. “There are students who cannot get into college, for whom our experience would transform their lives, but we’ve got 10,000 who are taking Ukulele for Adults and Tai Chi,” he said.

He warned that unless the Task Force addresses the problem, the Legislature may do it for them, based on little understanding of the system. The main thrust, said Chancellor Scott, is for classes essential to putting students on a path toward a career technical degree, learning basic skills, and transferring to a four-year college.

Other recommendations include providing funding for innovative programs to get more students through basic skills classes, having better alignment with high schools so not as many students will need remedial education in college, encouraging all students to have an education plan to give them a roadmap toward graduating or transferring, and requiring all schools to evaluate the success of their programs with scorecards.

The final Task Force recommendations will be posted online before heading to the Community Colleges Board of Governors for a vote next month. Between now and then, lower-than-expected state revenues could pull the budget “trigger”. If that happens, community colleges will lose another $100 million before the start of the next semester.