Bold vision for community colleges

Innovative ideas reflect a change in thinking

The trustees and chancellors of community colleges agree on what needs to be done to graduate 1 million more students with associate’s degrees – California’s share of President Obama’s ambitious goal of 5 million more community college graduates nationwide – by 2020. They also agree it will take hard choices on few dollars.

2020 Vision: A Report of the Commission of the Future of the Community College League of California, released Tuesday, reflects a sharp shift in thinking on how best to raise graduation rates for low-income, underachieving minorities. Some of the ideas – incentive-based funding tied to academic progress, financial aid tied to student achievement, elimination of late registrations ­– will force colleges to operate differently and perhaps even risk added short-term costs and a potential drop in enrollment-based state revenue.

“Nevertheless, the changes are smart in the eyes of both students and taxpayers alike, and need to be recognized by state policymakers as long-term savings and investments,” the Commission said.

Among its 17 recommendations, the Commission calls for:

  • Creating policies to encourage more students to enroll full-time directly out of high school. Study after study has shown that students who can compress their education are more likely to get a degree. The assumption has been that many community college students can’t attend full-time because of the need to work. But colleges could make it easier by smartly scheduling course sequences, requiring students to pursue federal financial aid with fee waivers (more counselors would still be needed) and, through a statewide initiative, to convey community college requirements and options in high school.
  • Requiring students to attend orientation sessions and participate in counseling and support programs. Colleges have left it up to students to seek help and plan their basic skills courses. But a new catchphrase – “students don’t do optional” – reflects the realization that many students want structure and support; they would trade fewer options for better odds of success. Going further, colleges could mandate underprepared students to pursue pathways of courses with cohorts of students.
  • Establishing a funding model that awards more money to schools that improve student performance as measured by benchmarks, like the completion of basic skills courses, on the path to graduation. Funding strictly by enrollments – butts in the seats – created disincentives to cash-strapped colleges to focus on student success. Financially, it didn’t matter. But counseling  and basic skills classes cost more, so funding must follow the commitment – and reward colleges that succeed. Colleges, in turn, would then be more prone to bring to scale programs that have proven to work, like Cabrillo College’s Academy for College Excellence for low-income, first-semester students, and Chabot College’s English Language Acceleration program.  Creating an incentive categorical program, which the Commission recommends, would be a toe in the water and vulnerable to budget cuts. Others have urged the Legislature to do a larger restructuring of funding.
  • Adopting the federal government’s approach to financial aid. To get a Pell Grant, students must keep their grades up and take a minimum number of credits. Aligning community college aid, such as the Board of Governors’ fee waiver for low-income students, to those requirements would encourage students to stay on task.
  • Accepting “moderate and predictable fee increases, tied to inflation.” The 33 commissioners couldn’t reach a consensus on raising fees. That was unfortunate, because more money will be needed to meet the challenges they have set, and it’s not likely to come from the general fund anytime soon. California’s community college fees are the lowest in the nation, and those who can’t afford them have them waived. What colleges should expect is that higher fees will be plowed back into the system.

The key recommendations in the report aren’t new. They’ve been proposed before by researchers such as Nancy Shulock, executive director at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Sacramento State – and until now, soundly rejected by some of the same leaders in the Community College League. So credit their openness to new thinking and willingness to consider innovations in other states, such as Washington, which adopted performance-based funding.

Some of the recommendations will require action in Sacramento. But, under the state’s decentralized system of local control, the burden of making the changes will fall to trustees of the 72 college districts. A shift in resources, from adult courses to basic skills classes, will create friction. But it’s a risk that at least the 33 members of the Commission say must be taken. “The Commission is deeply concerned,” the report says, “that California’s economic and political stability will be threatened unless improvements in participation and completion rates are made across demographic and socio-economic groups.”


  1. Having had a fair number of my students enter community college and then talking to them about their experiences, the students who earn degrees and transfer all share one thing – they connected with a caring and diligent counselor who helped them navigate the difficult community college landscape. The most common difficulties were all tied to course selection and ensuring that they got the courses they need and the courses they got were part of the IGETC’s. My former students still in community colleges after 3-4 years with no prospect to get out have had difficulty in meeting with a counselor at the college even once, let alone have a longstanding relationship.
    While this over-simplifies all of the myriad of issues in the community college system in California, it is one factor that makes a huge difference. Perhaps instructors and others could be trained in lieu of hiring additional counselors to provide guidance to students on how to earn a degree and transfer to a four year.

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    • Community colleges often have atcitularion agreements with large numbers of four-year schools which specify which out of their courses will be transferred in to fulfill which requirements. These will normally include all the public schools in state, and some other schools out of state.I’m not sure what you’re second question is. I’m guessing you mean to ask whether there is some online community college whose credits are transferable to more or less whatever four year school you want. The best online schools, in terms of having transferable credits, are the online programs of respected universities which have campuses.

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  2. Keep in mind that while one of the three missions of our California Community Colleges (CCCs) is to transfer students to 4-year colleges, another mission is workforce preparation/development … and on that score, many vocationally-related students at CCCs get snagged by eager employers before they are able to complete their Associates degrees (e.g., machinists, auto-tech’s, etc.).  So, just because some may never finish their A.S./A.A. or matriculate to a 4-year college doesn’t mean they (or the CTE-related programs they were enrolled in) were failures.

    Also, please note that there are three times as many B.A./B.S. holders enrolling in our CCCs as A.A./A.S. completers matriculating up to a 4-year college; clearly, many 4-year college grad’s did not earn a marketable degree or acquire high-demand skills, and are compelled to continue their schooling at a CCC.  There are many college grad’s who also go into private vocational institutions to learn a trade, and this after taxpayers helped pay over a $100,000 for their 4-year degrees at our CSU/UC campuses.

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  3. As a member of the State Board of the California Community College Trustees, I am heartened by how many education issues bloggers are interested in the Commission on the Future’s formal report.  But, as a local Trustee elected for West Valley-Mission Community College District, I am concerned that many members of the public are not watching closely enough to influence final local curricular decisions.  The report has received little attention in print media and close to zero broadcast attention.

    The statewide report challenges each college to triple the annual number of completed certificates and degrees by 2020.  Since Community College funding is capped regardless of how many students wish to enroll, we will have to trim some courses in order to expand other courses.  If we add courses and add courses and add courses, the District soon would go bankrupt under current law.  So… what to do?  Probably our District and many Districts across the state will transition away from semi-free “Community Education” to a pay-as-you-go community model that prioritizes Basic Skills coursework that moves students towards receiving their degrees.  And, we may have to delete entire courses of study in order to offer quality study in other departments.

    Locally-elected Trustees have to make the policy decisions, but also have limited resources.  At WVMCCD, we receive stipend compensation of $400 a month.  Trustees have no office workspace at the District and no personal staff.  The District we represent includes more than 200,000 voters, covering eight cities.  Just one piece of campaign mail easily can cost $35,000.  To make the necessary changes, local Trustees will value community support.  Opponents to the coming changes will be vocal and degree-focused students’ voices often are the least represented at public Board meetings.

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