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

Peter MacDougall

Peter MacDougall

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

Michelle Pilati

Michelle Pilati

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

Michele Siqueiros

Michele Siqueiros

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

Emily Kinner

Emily Kinner

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.

7 thoughts on “Should California community colleges prioritize enrollment to help students graduate earlier?

  1. Patricia James

    I appreciate the comments above, however, do not appreciate the reference to courses listed in Ms. Siqueiros comments.  Courses such as those listed could be offered at the community colleges via fee based programs in our community ed. divisions.  We have been cutting course offerings for several years now and to imply that we are not thoughtfully and painfully identifying what is needed, is a slap in the face of those of us in the trenches. 

    It is a difficult task to determine how to cut programs and to think that we would keep frivilous course offerings at this time is an insult to the many hours of hard work we put into making those decisions. 

    I want to thank Michele Pilati who has a grip on reality and agree with her that the conversation about priority registration is just getting started.  Priority registration is only one component in the revision of how we must do our work with less funding. 

    Hard times call on us to make hard choices.  We don’t want to compromise access for all, however, it’s impossible to maintain right now.  Our state is a mess. Blame Wall Street, but have some faith in those of us who love and know the community college mission.

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  2. Fred Jones

    Great forum on a very important subject: the future of the higher education “gem” of California, Community Colleges.

    With dramatic budget cuts and increasing tuition rates, perhaps policymakers in Sacramento and/or local Trustees will eventually consider a proposal that a university professor (and author) once posed to me:  Having taxpayers only subsidize economically viable majors of study (leaving the full costs of less marketable degrees to fall upon the students who choose to enroll in such coursework).

    Nothing like a little market reality to help focus a student’s educational plan.

    Shall taxpayers continue to have to subsidize courses such as those referenced in Ms. Sisqueiros’s piece, while programs that actually prepare students to become self-sufficient and contributing members of our economic base are shuttered?

    And one more final thought/concern: Given the dominant culture’s fixation on 4-year degrees as the only pathway to success, I worry that transfer students will be top-chickens in the prioritization pecking-order (while vocational training courses — which are often more expensive — continue to be closed at historic rates).

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  3. edfundwonk

    The issue is not WHETHER priorities should me made but HOW they should be made. Even sticking one’s head in the sand and pretending that the community colleges will continue to be everything to all is a decision: maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, the colleges simply do not have the resources to conduct “business as it used to be.”

    We know there are serious problems with the status quo — the charge to the Task Force was to identify which problems most need to be fixed, consider the policy options for doing so, identify important criteria for picking the best (only one of which was cost), and recommend the best according to the criteria.

    Policy choices (setting priorities) WILL be made — even if the chosen policy is a de facto “no choice.” Should priorities be made haphazardly or should they be made thoughtfully and explicitly. To those who are so ready to criticize the work of the commission, I ask two questions: (1) where you when the commission was holding one its many public hearings and (2) what SPECIFIC, alternative process would you use to arrive at SPECIFIC, implementable recommendations within the commission’s timeline ?

    Ms. Kinner, I disagree with your contention that the recommendations would adversely affect those who most need access. To the contrary, implementation will FREE UP slots that are currently occupied by students who are NOT serious about their education.

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  4. Temporary Fix, Permanent Pain

    We have a temporary budgetary problem. The response? A proposal to permanently narrow the mission of the community college system.
    No, that’s not acceptable.
    As Student Trustee Kinner points out, frequently the reason why students take longer is because they have to work. Moreover, in order to maintain financial aid eligibility, they have to take whatever classes they can get that will fit their work schedules, thus accumulating credits, often outside their intended field of study. This proposal would cut access to those most in need.
    Dr. Pilanti’s approach makes sense, not only because it is informed by her experience as an educator, but that in its simplicity–prioritize enrollment for those who are trying to take courses in their field of study–it is easy for everyone to understand and comply, and fair to working students.
    At the core of this problem is funding. If Governor Brown wasn’t so hell-bent on bending over backward for the state’s business interests, we could get a better ballot initiative that would provide sufficient funding for higher education. The California Federation of Teachers’ measure is an example, though even it does not restore all the funding cut over the past decade.
    Fred’s point regarding career technical coursework is also important. As the skills demanded in the job market evolve, workers hear from elected officials that they need to retrain to remain “competitive.” How are they going to do that if they’re blocked from the community colleges due to an arbitrary 100 credit rule? We need to invest in our productivity; the benefit in higher incomes will flow back to the state coffers in the form of higher income and sales tax receipts.
    Already, we are reaping the rotten fruits of school and college cutbacks over the past two decades, with a young generation that does not have the skills it needs for the jobs of today, let alone those of tomorrow. Penny wise, pound foolish–but hey, we always have money for tax cuts and prisons, right? Taxes bad, government bad, corporations and conservatives, good! That’s what Fox tells us to think…

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  5. Chris Stampolis

    Board of Governors’ member Peter MacDougal writes “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.”  This claim is a huge exaggeration and also misleading.  There are many transferable Community College courses – including online courses – available at every campus across the state.  Did many students find it difficult to construct a full-time schedule?  Yes.  Is it difficult to find every course needed?  Yes.  But let’s not undermine the concepts of the Student Success Task Force by perpetuating an easily refutable myth that students “could not register for a single course.”  Political hyperbole.  Rather, let’s support MacDougal’s statement that “students who develop an education plan and identify a course of study early in their academic careers are more likely to succeed.”

    State Academic Senate President Dr. Michelle Pilati writes “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.”   These wise guidelines underscore why the Legislature should move forward with the Student Success Task Force recommendations.  Student success is not one-size-fits-all, but it is goal-oriented.  In an era of austerity and high course demand, a student who demonstrates progress towards goal completion should gain some benefit for that diligence.

    CCO’s Michele Siqueiros further agrees that “Prioritizing enrollment for students with a goal and a plan to complete it is smart…Prioritizing our enrollment and course offerings is one way to start students off right.”  With 72 separately-elected Boards of Trustees, some guidance from the State Legislature will be welcome.  We don’t need Legislative micromanagement, but fresh direction about priorities will provide the framework local Boards need to make difficult decisions.

    Student Trustee Emily Kinner writes “Students end up taking classes they don’t need in order to keep their financial aid.”  While Trustee Kinner writes against the Student Success proposal, her argument regarding financial aid actually supports the proposal.  Kinner references “classes they don’t need.”  A student only would take “classes they don’t need” if they can’t enroll in class they DO need.  The Student Success Task Force recommendations need to be phased in so current students who were jammed for enrollment over past years can have a reasonable time to take needed courses and complete their studies.  Then, once reasonable enrollment priorities are enacted, no future students would have to enroll in “classes they don’t need” because they would have earned priority to enroll in classes they DO need.

    As an elected Trustee of the West Valley-Mission Community College District and as a member of the State Board of the California Community College Trustees (CCCT), I voted in both roles to endorse the Student Success Task Force proposals because they merit significant action.  Is every sentence perfect?  No, of course not.  But, as all four authors note above, students in all 72 Community College Districts need leaders to prioritize action regarding student enrollment.

    It’s not all or nothing regarding the Student Success Task Force proposals now before the Legislature.  We need action now – even partial action – so hyperbole and fear from all sides fade in favor of student opportunity and earned reward.  It is time for at least some action – not only for more talk.

    - Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District
    State Board Member, California Community College Trustees (CCCT)
    408-390-4748   *

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  7. Terri Sandoval

    I am graduating as an Associate Degree Nurse (to be able to get my RN in California) at my community college this fall and I have only 3 classes (11 units) to go to transfer to get into a Bachelors of Science in Nursing at a Cal State college. Because the nursing program is so intense it added a significant amount of credit/units onto my transcript which put me well over 100 units. I have followed the colleges outline to the tee, I have not changed my major even once. Now that I will loose my priority registration the likelihood of getting my transfer credits finished is over. The new Law has just taken away my right to earn my BSN, which is what I understand what I will need to be a RN under the Affordable Healthcare Act which will be in effect by 2014. I have never abused the system, I have a UC transfer GPA of 4.0, and have earned numerous awards. Why are student’s like me being punished for choosing a career path that entailed more required units than others. One size does not fit all.

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