Rationing for community colleges

Low grad rates cost the state millions

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.

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  1. When I was a student at Shasta College in Redding I learned that the college had a couple of students that had attended the college for 30 years! They just kept taking class after class, no apparent goals, they just couldn’t pass it the freebie college courses. So yes, this change is long overdue. But I also think students who are coming back to community college again for “re-training” should not be impacted, not at all. You must update skills in modern work force.

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  2. When money is tight, as it is, obviously the core mission is to feed graduates and graduation. They should always have first priority for resources and scheduling.
    But I think this dismissal of people using the community college to supplement lifelong learning is a mistake. Is it so terrible if an adult wants to take a spanish class or statistics without intending to get a degree? Most of us would benefit from a writing class. And the idea that giving people access to art or music is a waste… well. I’ve even seen professional, successful artists spun out of our local community college.
    There’s value to the community in having the college accessible to all, and there’s value to the college in letting a large cross section of the community access and enjoy the benefits of it. And while there’s a subsidy if you’re creating classes for the spot learners, if you’re adding a few on top of your core graduation-bound group, on the margin these new students bring in some income.
    Finally, if your goal is to train engineers, you’ll get better engineers if you send them through the auto mechanics and the welding and the ceramics departments as insistently as you send them through calculus.

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  3. The concern I have is for those students who struggle financially, or due to family circumstances/obligations cannot finish their degrees/certificates in the expected time period.

    These tend to be our most needy citizens, and such changes would tend to shut many of them out.

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  4. el, my sense from speaking with Chancellor Scott and others in the state community college system is that these are agonizing decisions.  One possible outcome regarding lifelong learning is that the students will have to pay the full cost of those classes; there’s simply not enough money to use the state funding to subsidize them, not when there’s such a great need to help students on the academic track earn their credential, AA degree or transfer to a four-year school.

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  5. A simple way is to set a unit cap of 90 semester units maximum before out of state tuition is charged. While I appreciate lifelong learning, much of that can now be done online or through auditing classes. Also, there needs to be better articulation amongst all community colleges statewide.

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  6. My 87-year-old stepfather takes welding and ceramics classes at College of Marin, and my mom took a steel drum class (not the usual steel drum demographic, being over 80). Are they being counted in the litany of losers, failures, parasites or whatever the newest alarms are?

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  7. Caroline is right. This is more in the way of the trend to prioritize the racking up of paper credentials and “success” “indicator” “data” over vocational education that has value in the real world. For example, if a high school graduate, or still better, a high school dropout, attends a local community college, takes a couple of plumbing courses, and then goes off to earn a living with those newly earned skills and without an A.A., is that person to be regarded as a failure and a dropout?! The Arab Spring has been motivated and led by young people with paper credentials and no job prospects. The recent rioting in London had some similarities, according to what I read in “The Economist”. A large source of the problem is that accountability hawks keep insisting upon using data to judge people, and then use extremely suspect reasoning to label others (in this case community colleges, and especially their leaders) as failures and demand “consequences”, too often unemployment, for those who do not rise to the standards of the elect sitting in judgment.

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  8. Agreed, Bruce. There are several employers that I know of that encourage their employees to take classes at the community college. Generally these are full time workers planning to stay in their existing jobs, so the goal is different – to take a class a year or a class a semester to upgrade skills and gain breadth rather than to hurry to complete a particular degree or certificate requirement. THIS HAS VALUE.
    @Kathy, I’m glad to hear that they agonize over them. They should. This is not slicing off some fat but rather amputating a limb. But I don’t get that from your article at all. I don’t hear regret nor do I hear recognition that the non-graduating students are getting value.
    We may well have to slice off this limb. But please, let’s not fill the scene with documents saying we won’t miss it. Instead, let’s try to recognize this important function so that it can be restored when possible.
    Bonus: after taking classes at the college, I am a lot happier about the $250/yr line item for it on my property taxes. This is no small thing.

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  9. The issue is not whether something is “worthwhile”  or not. The issue is setting priorities. The simple, inescapable fact is that the cost to provide everything “worthwhile” exceeds the colleges’ revenue and there is no sign that this situation will change in at least the next five years (LAO).

    The colleges’ revenues have been drastically cut and will likely be cut even more in January by the budget “trigger.” And with the vast majority of the community colleges’ funds spent on offering courses, this means denying students admission entirely, reducing course sections, or eliminating entire courses. 

    Make no mistake about it: cuts WILL be made. The question is whether they will be made through a thoughtful deliberative process or by such decision-avoiding mechanisms as cutting all colleges’ funds across the board and letting local boards take the heat for deciding what gets cut and what doesn’t.

    We’re talking battlefield triage — who lives and who dies? Should we spend tax revenues on  letting community members take a sixth recreational classes or for an additional section of Chem 1A that a student has been waiting three semesters to take as a prerequisite to her major? What about the student who has signed up for and dropped the same class three times, denying access each time to another student who really needs to take it? Or preventing a student from taking a course she needs to become a plumber? Read the report for more examples like these.

    So, yes, el, there is something terrible about someone taking Spanish or statistics without intending to get a degree when it means a student who wants to transfer to UC Santa Cruz is denied access to a required prerequisite. And Giselle, if you’re really concerned about students being unable to finish their degrees in a reasonable time period, you should welcome these changes. They’ll free up course sections for these students. Those who need financial aid can easily get all their fees waived (BOG Grant) and additional aid through federal Pell  Grant. CarolineSF — Where did you get the idea that the rationale for cutting funding for adult lifelong learning classes was that the students were deemed to be “losers, failures, parasites”?  Bruce William Smith — vocational training (in a very large number of vocations) is a major part of the colleges’ mission, of equal importance to academic courses. No one suggests that academic courses be given a higher priority.

    Everyone — before jumping to conclusions about what the report says, please read it.


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  10. Thank you for the link and the recommendation to read the report, edfundwonk; I did read through it, in particular the section defining student success. My concerns remain. Every student success metric mentioned, except for that on successful course completion, is inappropriate and signals a commission with an agenda separate and distinct from many of those students who would sign up for courses but who may now be made into low priorities by leadership whose definition of success equates to credentialism, a maximally expensive, inefficient approach to preparing a workforce. Under all, other than course completion, of the metrics mentioned in the summary paragraphs “Defining Student Success”, both Caroline’s grandmother and my hypothetical plumber would be defined as failures and dropouts, since these students’ goals would have nothing to do with transferring to a four-year school nor even with accumulating credits, but only with improving their lives through education. And the vision all of the commission members subscribe to, insofar as it includes an easy walk to the financial aid office, shows how far the original, inspiring vision of the Master Plan for Higher Education has been betrayed in California, since all public education, from community college through UC, was originally planned to be free, and now none of it is or will be.

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