Should California community colleges prioritize enrollment to help students graduate earlier?
By the end of this week, the Student Success Act of 2012 should be officially introduced in the Legislature, launching the debate on how to improve success rates at California’s community colleges. The Act is necessary to implement some of the 22 recommendations of the Student Success Task Force, which spent the last year developing the proposals and soliciting feedback at dozens of public hearings across the state.
California’s community colleges enroll about 2.6 million students at 112 campuses and have a broad mission. But the completion rates for students seeking associate degrees, certificates, and transfer credits is disappointing. Less than 54 percent of degree-seeking students ever reach their goals, and the rates are much lower for African American and Latino students, and the vast majority of students who have to complete basic skills courses.
Although the Community College Board of Governors approved the task force recommendations, some of the proposals remain divisive, particularly the plans that give priority enrollment to students who move more quickly through community college and, conversely, push the other students to the end of the line.
We have four commentaries on this issue from people who have been closely involved in the process over the last year. Community College Board of Governors member Peter MacDougall served as chair of the Student Success Task Force. Michelle Pilati gave testimony at many of the hearings as president of the California Community Colleges Academic Senate, as did Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and Emily Kinner, the president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees. We welcome your thoughts on the issue.
Peter MacDougall: New enrollment priorities necessary and fair
The question that is posed is one that the Student Success Task Force studied in great detail as it developed recommendations designed to help California community college students succeed and achieve their educational goals on time.
It used to be that community colleges could serve almost anyone who wanted to enroll in a wide offering of courses – whether the goal was to get a degree or certificate, transfer to a four-year institution, or take enrichment courses. However, severe budget cuts have substantially reduced the number of courses colleges can offer. Yet enrollment policies remain in place throughout much of the system that allow hobbyists and students who have accumulated large numbers of units to register ahead of first-time students seeking certificates, associate degrees in career and technical fields, and transfer preparation.
This is not acceptable; hundreds of thousands of first-time students, recent graduates of California’s high schools, have been turned away because they could not register for a single course.
The task force, recognizing that financial constraints have forced colleges to limit their educational offerings, concluded that a new set of priorities is needed to guide enrollment. The proposed policies will give priority to students seeking courses that address the core mission of our colleges: career technical education, completing lower division transfer requirements, and basic skills and English as a second language. These students will also be expected to take a diagnostic assessment, participate in orientation, and develop an education plan.
All students will need to identify a program of study within three semesters or they will lose their registration priority. In addition, students who accumulate more than 100 units, not including English as a second language and basic skills courses, would lose their enrollment priority.
Research shows that students who develop an education plan and identify a course of study early in their academic careers are more likely to succeed. Students, of course, will be able to change their course of study should their interests and goals change.
Given the substantial increase in the expense of pursuing both a four-year degree and career and technical training programs, it is imperative that California ensure low-cost access to the high-quality educational opportunities provided by our community colleges.
Altering enrollment prioritization is an efficient way of encouraging successful student behaviors and ensuring that we intelligently ration classes. While these policy proposals may have been born at a time of financial crisis in our colleges, they are fair and sensible reforms that should be made regardless of budget considerations.
Peter MacDougall, Ph.D., is chair of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force and is a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. He served as superintendent and president of the Santa Barbara Community College District from 1981 to 2002. Prior to that, Dr. MacDougall served as dean of students at Los Angeles Pierce College and director of educational services for the Los Angeles Community College District. From 1968 to 1975, he was associate dean of students and a professor of counseling psychology in the graduate school of education at Rutgers State University of New Jersey.
Michelle L. Pilati: Deciding who’s worthy conflicts with mission
Prioritization is not a simple “do we do it or not” option; it is a multidimensional tool that can be used in effective and ineffective ways. The notion of using prioritization as a means to “enable students to graduate earlier” is simplistic at its best and fundamentally flawed at its worst. In addition to the implication that “graduation” (i.e., degree completion) is our only mission, the factors that lead students to take “too long” are complex and, often, institutional. Unit accumulation need not reflect a student “wandering” or engaging in avocational pursuits. Students may accumulate “excess” units as they strive to identify their goals, enroll in classes that do not apply towards their goal due to an inability to get into needed classes, or find a particular faculty member is so engaging that they want to learn more from him or her.
Putting aside the idea that proper prioritization will force students to establish a goal and stick with it (college grads out there – how many times did you change your major?), could we use prioritization as a means of helping students to attain their goals? Of course we could, but how do we go about this in an equitable way? Who is more “worthy”: a veteran, a new student, a student with two classes left to complete a transfer degree, a student with four classes left to complete a certificate in automotive technology, or a new immigrant who wishes to learn English? While the focus of conversation about this topic has often been about who should not have priority, no one has considered the universe of students who have worthy educational needs but have goals that may not be consistent with the quantitative definitions of success that we are compelled to work with.
Ideally, students would have priority access to the courses that are consistent with their goals; the student who needs a given class in order to graduate would trump the one who is taking it for pleasure, and the English-language learner would have priority for those classes to help her attain her goal. The conversation about prioritization has yet to really begin.
Michelle L. Pilati, Ph.D., is the president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) and a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College, where she has been full-time faculty since 1999, and served as Distance Education Coordinator and Curriculum Chair. At the national level she has pursued her interest in online education, serving as an editor for MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) and co-editor of the MERLOT peer-reviewed journal, JOLT. Prior to her current position, she served as a visiting professor at UC Irvine, conducted postdoctoral research at UCLA’s Drug Abuse Research Center, and worked as an academic counselor in UCLA’s Department of Psychology. She completed her doctorate in psychology at UCLA.
Michele Siqueiros: Prioritizing fulfills promise of college opportunity
Students are taking longer and longer to graduate from community college, and that’s due to several factors, including devastating budget cuts that forced the system to eliminate thousands of courses and turn away an estimated 200,000 students last fall. For those who do get in, researchers in our 2010 Divided We Fail report found that after six years, only three in ten degree-seeking students obtained a vocational certificate, earned an associate degree, or transferred to a four-year university.
We must continue to demand adequate funding for higher education, but we can also be smarter with the resources available. Prioritizing course offerings is one way to do that. There are daily stories about community college students unable to get the classes they need for their major or program. In a year when more than 20,000 course sections were cut – including basic skills, transfer-level English and math, career pathway courses, and ESL – the following were still available: Playing the Ukulele for Older Adults; Ceramics: An Option for Friday Night; Latin for Lifelong Learners; Reminiscing; Reclaiming Joy: Meeting Your Inner Child; and Finding Buried Treasure: Organizing Your Clutter. You get the picture.
California no longer has the resources to subsidize students attending community college for recreational purposes. Prioritizing enrollment for students with a goal and a plan to complete it is smart. They will finish community college faster, freeing up spaces for the next class of high school graduates who can’t find a spot at a UC or Cal State campus, can’t afford the higher fees, or simply prefer the preparation, flexibility, and location of their local community college.
Under the current system, some students are forced to enroll in courses they do not need in order to keep their financial aid and/or their unit count high because the system rewards the accumulation of units with registration priority instead of prioritizing students who are trying to transfer, get a degree, or earn a vocational certificate.
The community college system has an opportunity to reengineer itself with the recent Student Success Task Force recommendations. The recommendations include prioritized enrollment and aligning course offerings. They move us toward a core value many of us believe: that the promise of college opportunity is fulfilled only if students are successful at getting through college. Prioritizing our enrollment and course offerings is one way to start students off right and prepare them to cross the finish line.
Michele Siqueiros is the executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that works to expand access and success in higher education for California students by promoting policy solutions with the support of a broad-based, bipartisan statewide coalition. She was recently appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Student Aid Commission. She is a board member of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Alliance for a Better Community and serves on the core planning team for the Latino Student Success initiative led by Long Beach City College.
Emily Kinner: Plan could force out neediest students
The Student Success Act currently being drafted is of deep concern for many community college students. The legislation is modeled on the Student Success Task Force recommendations recently approved by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.
While we believe many of the recommendations would bring positive changes, the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST) has voted to oppose this package because, contrary to its stated focus on improving student success, we believe it will have the unintended consequence of pushing out students who are less likely to succeed, therefore superficially improving the success statistics of our system.
The proposed changes to the Board of Governors’ fee waivers are one example. In order to continue to qualify for a waiver, students would have to identify a degree, certificate, transfer, or career advancement goal; meet institutional satisfactory progress standards; and have no more than 110 units, not including basic skills and ESL courses. This could make community college unaffordable for our most underserved students, who may take longer to get through college because they have to take time out from school to work in order to support their families. These students end up taking classes they don’t need in order to keep their financial aid, but could wind up with more than 110 units as a result. Without the fee waivers, we are concerned that many of these students will drop out for good. At a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Higher Education in Sacramento, Assemblymember Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego, called the recommendation the “death penalty” for some of our neediest students.
During this time of fiscal crisis, with the toll it has taken on public education in the state of California, we appreciate the need for a reevaluation of how to better serve California Community College students. We also understand that there are greater problems with our government’s fiscal structures that can’t be addressed within the context of the Student Success Task Force.
We respect the efforts and dedication of the task force members during their yearlong deliberations regarding student success, as well as their attempts to remedy the fiscal problems of our community college system. We appreciate that our voices have been heard and have helped in the more positive changes since the first drafts. However, we feel more time is needed to consider proposals in order to make sure we protect our most vulnerable populations because, ultimately, student success will be achieved only when the goal is student access.
Emily Kinner serves as student trustee for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST). She is a Rappaport intern at the De Anza Institute for Community and Civic Engagement. Since 2011, she has led the De Anza EcoPass Campaign for affordable transportation and served as coalitions coordinator for the “No on PROP 23″ CALPIRG campaign. She is currently an organizer for the “Occupy for Education at De Anza” project, advocating for access, equity, and affordability in the California community college system.