New reality forcing community colleges to pursue monumental change

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What a difference a few years makes!  The 2020 Vision for Student Success report released last week by the League for California Community Colleges evoked a tone and contained recommendations that are a far cry from just a short while ago when similar calls for reform were staunchly resisted.  Speaking for myself and, I believe, for other researchers and advocates who have sought to emphasize the critical role of the community colleges in reversing the downward slide in California’s education-related prospects, the report is a welcome development.

Also welcome is the Chancellor’s impending student success task force, which is creating good energy and momentum around the need to increase student success. Combine these systemwide efforts with the exemplary work going on at many campuses, and we get a picture of a system energized to take on tough but hugely important challenges.

I have been asked what accounts for the change. I think there are three things at work.

First, the evidence of California’s slide has become irrefutable and downright alarming. California is falling relative to other states that are, collectively, falling relative to other nations. While many competitor nations are seeing sharp increases in the education levels of younger generations, the United States as a whole is not producing such gains, and in California each successively younger 10-year cohort is less well educated than the one before. This is a sure recipe for economic decline in today’s information-based global economy.

Researchers, advocates, and policy leaders across the country, including President Obama and major foundations, are sounding alarms and setting ambitious goals for increasing community college completion. It is both heartening to see the community college sector getting the attention and respect that it deserves and disheartening to recognize the seriousness of the challenge ahead. In any event, the need for monumental gains is undeniable.

Second, it has become apparent to nearly everyone that we are confronting a new reality in terms of public-sector support for education. It is simply no longer credible to pursue a strategy of requesting that prior budgets be restored, by program category. We have to try new things, and try them on bigger scales than ever before. Small “boutique” programs that yield promising results but have no chance of being brought to scale are not going to get the job done. Policy changes of the sort that the League recommends stand better chances of producing changes “at scale” because they affect entire institutions.

Third, over the past few years there has been much good information emerging from the worlds of research and practice, to the great credit of the major foundations that are investing in reform.  Consensus is forming around the need for tighter structures and pathways for students, more mandates and fewer choices, better assessments and streamlined developmental education, and policy environments that create incentives that promote, rather than impede, college efforts to help students succeed.

Transformational change is never easy, especially in large and complex organizations. Past resistance to change may have been driven by optimism that end goals could be reached without such disruptions to familiar patterns. It is now as clear as can be that end goals cannot be reached by business as usual or incremental changes. I applaud the League for its report. But, as important as it is to lay out the “what” that needs to happen, it will be vital in the coming months to lay out the “how” and the “who” and the “how much” and the “by when” so that the necessary progress can occur.

Nancy Shulock is director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP) at Sacramento State University, and a professor of Public Policy and Administration. IHELP conducts applied policy research to advance the understanding of student success in higher education and improve state public policies. She has authored numerous reports and articles on higher education policy and performance, finance policy, community colleges, accountability, policy analysis, strategic planning, and legislative decision making.

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