Next step for Student Success Act

Retiring Community College Chancellor Jack Scott watched his signature initiative move closer to becoming law. The Assembly Higher Education Committee yesterday unanimously passed SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012.

The bill would implement two of the 22 recommendations developed by the Student Success Task Force, a panel of educators, policymakers, students, and researchers that spent last year studying and taking testimony on ways to improve the completion rate at California’s community colleges.

“SB 1456 is about community college students and the tremendous fierce urgency of doing something now,” the bill’s author, Democratic Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, told the Assembly panel.

As TOPed previously reported, studies have found that after six years, only 30 percent of community college students earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year college.

The first proposal puts the onus on community colleges to provide support services for every student. These include orientation, assessment and placement, counseling and education planning, and tutoring or other interventions to help students who are falling off the path. Colleges would also have to evaluate the effectiveness of those supports and report them to the Legislative Analyst.

The second recommendation establishes for the first time academic standards for receiving Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers. In order to continue receiving a BOG waiver, students would have to maintain a “C” average for two semesters.

“Why did we put in there something about the BOG fee waiver?” asked Chancellor Scott, in anticipation of the question.  “Well, we wanted not only institutions to accept responsibility for student success, but we wanted students to accept responsibility.”

Community College Chancellor Jack Scott testifying on SB 1456, the Student Success Act.  (Source:  The California Channel).  Click to enlarge.
Community College Chancellor Jack Scott testifying on SB 1456, the Student Success Act. (Source: The California Channel). Click to enlarge.

Scott noted that this is also required for both the federal Pell Grant program and Cal Grants. “We just didn’t quite feel it was fair for somebody to continue for 8 or 10 semesters and never achieve a 2.0,” he said.

Speakers heaped praise on Lowenthal for his willingness to work with key constituencies to find middle ground on some contentious issues.  The biggest concerns were over new restrictions on BOG fee waivers.  Lowenthal agreed to remove a provision eliminating eligibility for waivers for students with more than 110 units.  He also agreed to an appeals process and to phasing-in the changes over time.

As a result, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, the Student Senate, and MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund switched from opposing the bill to supporting it.

“I think that this is a stronger bill because all of the stakeholders have come to the table,” said Jessie Ryan with the Campaign for College Opportunity.  “We’ve done a great deal of work with social justice organizations across the state and student organizations to address their concerns, and I think we’re at a place where we can all acknowledge that completion matters and the Student Success Act puts us on that path.”

Well, not exactly.  The Community College Association (CCA), which is the higher education division of the California Teachers Association, argued that SB 1456 is more talk than walk.  Ron Norton Reel, a speech teacher at Mt. San Antonio College, testified that the bill contains no definition of success or strategy for measuring it, creates more inequalities among students and doesn’t provide any funding to hire the thousands of additional counselors that will be needed to help students establish educational goals and a plan to reach them.  Without that “then the intent is good, but the consequences are bad,” said Ron Norton Reel with the CCA.

Lowenthal countered by reading a section of the bill that clearly states that community colleges won’t be held accountable unless they receive funding to carry out the provisions.  “We all want additional funding,” Lowenthal said.  “The people who support this bill, more than even the opposition, want additional funding.”  Until that money comes, he said, colleges need to start preparing for the changes ahead.

Sunset, sunrise

Another of Chancellor Scott’s projects – which is about to expire – received a new lease on life by the Higher Education Committee.  SB 1070, introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would strengthen and extend the Career Technical Education Pathways Initiative funded by Scott’s 2005 bill, SB 70.   These are typically academies within high school or middle schools where students learn many of their core subjects through the lens of a business or industry.  Some are in community colleges.

At Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove Unified School District, students in the Green Technology Academy learn science and math through hands-on experimentation with alternative energy.  They build solar-powered vehicles, compare the effectiveness of different biofuels and study physics by making and launching small rockets and measuring their velocity and height.

“Every time I see one of these career pathways programs whether it be the partnership academies or linked learning or one of the other models, learning comes alive, and it comes alive without sacrificing rigor that prepares students for college and career,” Steinberg told the committee Tuesday afternoon.

Career academies should be tied to local business and industry needs.  (Source:  Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarge.
Career academies should be tied to local business and industry needs. (Source: Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarge.

SB 1070 would hold schools more accountable for success than its predecessor and require them to submit data about student outcomes.  Initial funding would come from the Quality Education Investment Act.  That’s the $3 billion program created to settle a lawsuit brought by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for failing to repay school districts and community colleges money borrowed from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 to help the state get through that year’s budget crisis.

The State Department of Education also funds the California Partnership Academy program.  They’re all competitive grants and together the various funding sources support about 700 academies in California schools, according to the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California, Berkeley.  Since 2005, the career tech academies have enrolled nearly 750,000 students, although they tend to be concentrated in about a quarter of the state’s 1,000 school districts.

The results are impressive. Attendance and graduation rates are higher in academies than in the comprehensive high schools where they’re located.  Test scores are a little better too, even though many of the students – 50 percent, by law, in the partnership academies – are considered at risk.

“Overall, in the career advancement projects, we’ve seen a 90 percent retention; that’s huge, we don’t see that in our other programs,” testified Carole Goldsmith, the Vice Chancellor for Educational Services and Workforce Development in West Hills Community College District.  The district runs a teacher pipeline with one of its career tech grants.  “I think all of us intrinsically know that when you link education to hands-on approach to what industry wants, you’re going to engage students.”

No love for Gov’s comm. college plans

Two months after the release of the budget trailer bill, the Department of Finance yesterday was unable to provide specific details on Governor Brown’s sweeping proposal to change the way community colleges are funded.

At a hearing before the Senate’s budget subcommittee on education, community college officials also questioned the reasoning behind that proposal and others that were considered and rejected following a yearlong review by the Student Success Task Force on community colleges.

The governor has recommended eliminating the current model, which funds community colleges based on how many full-time equivalent students (FTES) are enrolled, and replacing it with a system built around how successful colleges are at meeting performance standards. Schools would receive a 4 percent annual increase in their base budget for reaching those goals.

But at Monday’s hearing, finance officials couldn’t say what the standards are or how they’ll be measured. “We don’t have those metrics,” Juliana Morozumi told the panel. When pressed for some examples by Senator Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), she indicated that successful outcome would probably include degree completion and transfer rates.

In an uneasy exchange, Wright suggested that some colleges could be penalized under this system for having a large number of students who just take a couple of classes they need to improve their job skills.  “That’s why I said we’re still working on it,” answered Morozumi.

The Legislative Analyst’s office and community college officials gave the governor a verbal pat on the back for raising the issue of accountability, but doubted this plan would fly. For starters, it would be a hard sell to legislators because it removes much of their authority for allocating resources to community colleges. It also leaves little time to develop what would probably be controversial accountability criteria and measurements by the time the final budget is approved. Additionally, the Student Success Task Force took a strong stand against performance-based funding.

“I appreciate the governor’s interest in reform and I’m hopeful he will buy into the reforms that we have suggested in the Student Success Task Force,” Chancellor Jack Scott said during a phone call last night. “To suddenly change the whole system to outcomes I think is frankly improbable.”

Sample student success scorecard (source:  Student Success Task Force report) Click to enlarge
Sample student success scorecard (source: Student Success Task Force report) Click to enlarge

The Chancellor’s office already has a working group developing metrics for student success scorecards recommended by the task force to promote better accountability and transparency.

Budget is bigger priority

Most people at the hearing saw the discussion of how to fund community colleges as something of a distraction compared with the issue of how much funding the schools will receive.

In the past three years, community colleges have lost about $1 billion (not including de facto cuts from no statutory COLA increases), and there’s a chance that will go even higher before the current school year is out.  Already in 2011-12, community colleges have taken more than half-a-million in reductions.

  • $400 million reduction in general fund apportionments
  • $102 million in mid-year trigger cuts
  • $149 million “February surprise” from lower than expected property taxes and student fee revenues (despite an increase in fees from $26 to $36 per unit)

There’s also a chance they’ll have to eat another $146 million this year if revenue from the dissolution of county redevelopment agencies is lower than the Administration’s estimate.

“I think this represents a very very major challenge for our districts and it’s possible that some would not be able to make it,” said Community College Vice Chancellor of Finance Dan Troy.

Colleges are hoping that Gov. Brown will give some indication of what the rest of this year looks like financially when he releases the May revise budget in about a month.

Next year is a white-knuckle unknown.  If the Governor’s tax initiative passes, $218 million will go toward paying down the community college deferral.  If it fails, the deferral stays and the colleges absorb an additional $30 million in programmatic cuts and, most likely, another mid-year trigger cut.

Enrollment has fallen by 400,000 since the cuts began. (Source:  Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.
Enrollment has fallen by 400,000 since the cuts began. (Source: Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.

At a time when more people need postsecondary education to be prepared for the increasingly skilled requirements of decent-paying jobs, these reductions are having the opposite effect.  Community Colleges have lost 400,000 students in four years, falling from a high of 2.8 million to 2.4 million today.

Students are being turned away at Ohlone College in Fremont, the chair of the Board of Trustees told the subcommittee.  “The demand has grown over 44 percent in 15 years, said Greg Bonaccorsi.  But funding cuts forced the school to scale back courses and now “students are being turned away,” said Bonaccorsi.   “It violates the tenet of public education.”

Unexpected cuts for CA colleges

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. California community colleges are facing a midyear budget cut. No, not the $102 million January trigger cut; that’s so last month. This one is being called the “February surprise,” and it triggered this tweet from California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott:

#CA #Comm_Colleges will take another $149M unexpected cut this year. The state must stop disinvestment in #highered

The $149 million came about from two miscalculations: revenues from both property taxes and student fees were significantly lower than expected.

It turns out that when preparing the 2011-12 budget, the Department of Finance was overly optimistic in estimating how much money community colleges would bring in by raising student fees from $26 per unit to $36 per unit. Finance officials anticipated $110 million in increased revenues. The Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office figured that was about $25 million too high. They were both wrong. The shortfall came to $107 million.

The remaining $42 million deficit is almost entirely due to a shortage in property taxes. Unlike K-12 schools, there’s no automatic backfill for community colleges when property taxes come up short. Community college leaders said they’ve seen large decreases in property tax revenue before, but the student fees really caught them off guard.

“We’ve never seen an enrollment fee shortfall this large,” said Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy for the Community College League of California (CCLC). “This is a new phenomenon that we’re seeing.”

What happened was something of a domino effect. When Gov. Brown and his finance department factored in the new revenues from the fee increase, they didn’t fully account for the corresponding increase in the number of students applying for Board of Governors fee waivers. As we reported here, even before the latest fee hike, waivers have been on the rise; this year 62 percent of students received them.

CCLC estimates that the $149 million amounts to an additional reduction of $135 per student.* That’s on top of the midyear trigger cuts, which were added to the $313 million decrease in the 2011-12 budget that kicked in at the start of the school year. If you’ve lost track, it amounts to $564 million this fiscal year.

Colleges did plan for some additional shortfall, but not this much. Los Rios Community College District, in the Sacramento area, expected to lose another $1.2 million; instead, it faces a $6.8 million cut. “We won’t absorb it all in this year,” said Jon Sharpe, deputy chancellor for finance and administration. “We think that it would be unfair to pull the rug out for some of the academic and student programs.”

Instead, Los Rios is reducing costs that don’t directly affect students. Openings in non-academic positions won’t be filled, they’re cutting back discretionary spending, and, said Sharpe, “a good portion of it will have to come out of next year.”

The tiny Lake Tahoe Community College – one of the four smallest districts in the state – is dipping half a million dollars into its reserves to get through the rest of this year. “We’ve asked everybody to be very prudent,” said superintendent and president Kindred Murillo. They’re cutting back on travel, putting equipment purchases on hold, and paring down technology, facilities, and human resources assessments that are required for accreditation.

They’re also appealing to Sacramento to stop the budget seesaw and create a reliable funding structure for future years so schools can plan their course schedules and hire people without worrying whether they’ll have to cancel.

“You offer a class to an adjunct professor and then two weeks later you’re saying, ‘I’m sorry, the budget’s been cut and we have to alter our schedule,'” Murillo explained. “Education needs a stable budget, one that we can count on from one year to the next.”

Over the past few weeks as the severity of the budget situation became clear, high-level conversations have taken place with the State Chancellor’s Office, the Department of Finance, and lawmakers. Community colleges are seeking agreement for an appropriations bill that would cover the losses.

Vice Chancellor for Finance Dan Troy said he doesn’t expect any action before the May revise, but it would be helpful to get a sign from the governor and Legislature that they’re willing to take action. That way, the colleges will have time to plan for cuts instead of having to make quick reductions.

“The problem comes where you have no idea whether it’s coming or not,” said Troy. “That’s why I’m hopeful the governor and Legislature will send a signal that they’re looking out for us.”

* Click here for list of how much each district will lose.

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.

LAO: raise community college fees

The Legislative Analyst is proposing that the Legislature raise fees at community colleges by $14 per credit – more than 50 percent from the current $26 per credit (which, in turn was raised last year from $20). It sounds like a whopper, but many  students wouldn’t pay it because of fee waivers for low-income families and new federal income tax credits for the middle class. However, the increase would provide $150 million to the system at a time when enrollments statewide have been falling because many colleges have significantly cut the number of sections they’ve been offering, shutting students out of courses that they need.

Even at $40 – $1,200 for a student taking a fulltime load of 30 credits – fees would remain the lowest in America.

Continue reading “LAO: raise community college fees”