Thursday, March 15, 2007 | A controversial paper that faults an atmosphere of leniency and state policies for producing a culture of failure for community college students is drawing fire from at least one community college administrator in San Diego.

The report claims that only one-fourth of community college students earn a certificate or degree within six years. And among those who later transfer to universities, some drop out and end up with nothing to show for their considerable efforts, since an associate’s degree is not required for university admission.

Issued last month by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State, the report places much of the blame for students’ low completion rates on state policies. State funding for the colleges, for example, is based on enrollment numbers, and the institute reports that the colleges regularly fill empty seats by allowing students to register late for classes, forego prerequisites and postpone remedial courses without being penalized. The report finds that this atmosphere of leniency, compounded with additional state policies that provide for little academic counseling and few financial aid programs, places too much emphasis on “open access” and too little emphasis on student success.

The report also finds that minority students are even less likely to graduate. Among Latinos, who make up the fastest-growing population both within the community colleges and the California workplace, only 18 percent of students earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a university within six years.

“Some argue that completion rates are destined to be low at open enrollment institutions and that the colleges can’t do anything about it until they attract better-prepared high school graduates,” the report states. “This argument ignores the powerful impact that policies can have through the incentives they create. It also displays a certain hopelessness that can’t be accepted in view of the state’s urgent need for more educated workers.”

Nancy Shulock, director of the institute and co-author of the report, said older students and students who are enrolled in community colleges only part-time are also less likely to complete a degree or certificate. “We open that door wide and everyone comes in,” Shulock said, “but we don’t lead them across to the other side and out the door with a degree.

“The populations who are aging and retiring are the most well-educated. Our point is this: This is the new California. We have to get it educated or it’s not going to be the Golden State we’d like it to be.”

Without a college diploma in hand, students miss out on a significant lifetime earning benefit. According to a 2006 study by the California Community Colleges System Office, certificate or degree completion leads to a 30 percent increase in per capita income.

Several college leaders claim the report misunderstands the multiple missions of the colleges as well as their student populations. Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, argues that California’s community colleges have always had multiple missions, from providing basic skills to offering courses on personal enrichment. Not all students seek a certificate or degree and the report acknowledges this — of the 520,407 students who enrolled in a community college for the first time during the 1999 academic year, 40 percent were not seeking a degree or certificate at all.

Carroll also disagrees with the report’s recommendation that community colleges adopt financial incentives to increase the number of students who are enrolled full-time, since full-time students are reportedly four times more likely to complete a degree than are part-time students.

“Community college students are by nature more part-time than full-time because they work,” Carroll said. “They are not typically affluent, and no matter how much financial aid you might provide, they would still not have the kind of support they need (to enroll full-time). It’s naive to think that will not be the case.”

Still, Carroll finds “much that is laudable” in the report.

“When serious people do serious work, it’s deserving of respect,” she said. “In the end, I think this whole interest in accountability is healthy. There are some who fear it, but I’m not one of them.”

Other community college leaders have been less magnanimous in their response to the report. Peter Schrag, a columnist for The Sacramento Bee, noted that some were “lobbing stinkbombs over the parapets” in rebuttal to the report.

The Community College League of California issued talking points that claimed the report is “insulting to community colleges,” was written “with an elitist view of education” and is a “direct assault on access to higher education.”

Other groups have taken issue with the report’s data. Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said the institute “sets up a problem based on a questionable data set and then makes recommendations which don’t track the problem stated.” In response to the study, the faculty association presented a 12-page rebuttal to the state Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, arguing in part that statewide completion rates are low “when compared to the number of students in the system, but not in comparison to other two-year colleges in other large states,” and that the cohort the study examines is not valid because it includes first-time freshmen who are “exploring their options” and do not necessarily want a degree, as well as other students who state they seek a degree, but have little understanding of the work that entails.

Shulock said she was surprised by the negative reaction to her report because her institute contracted with and used data provided by the colleges to compile its findings, she says.

“In spite of the fact that we thought we were clear,” Shulock said. “The colleges nevertheless chose a very defensive and aggressive posture. One thing that’s kind of amusing to me is that every step of the way I consulted with the (California Community Colleges) chancellor’s board … and I saw so many nodding heads. I think there is a lot of support in the trenches that is not reflected in their posture. Some leaders are thinking, ‘It would have served us better to embrace this report.’”

One group that has lauded the findings is the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. President Patrick Callan called the report “one of the best examples of this particular kind of research that I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Community colleges were not created to be places where a large number of students should fail,” he said. “Whatever the number is (in California), it’s too low. I think we should all at least agree on that. But many of the people who ought to be lining up behind this report have chosen to take it in another direction. To my dismay, a lot of the attack seems to be ad hominem. Name-calling should not be the response.”

The report’s cool reception might be a case of bad timing. Californians for Community Colleges, a joint advocacy group, is currently considering a ballot measure for November 2008 that will change the way community colleges are funded. Currently, Proposition 98 requires that funding for the community colleges be based on enrollment at the K-12 grade levels. The ballot measure will, among other things, detach the community colleges’ share of the state budget from K-12 enrollment.

Changing Proposition 98 will require support from voters, and that might prove difficult if the institute’s report tarnishes the community colleges’ reputation.

But Shulock insists her report recognizes the significant role the state’s 109 community colleges play in its educational landscape. Her report notes that “nearly three-fourths of California’s public college undergraduates enroll in our community colleges, making the colleges the most important link in the chain of upward mobility and economic health in California.”

“You can’t solve the problem without the community colleges,” she added. “We don’t believe it’s possible to reverse these trends without the community colleges enrolling more students. We realize that the community colleges need more resources and have a seriously challenging mission, but I don’t agree when they say, ‘Because we have such a tough mission, this is the best we can do.’ I say let’s fix these state policies, and if we have everything right with the state policies, then we’re doing the best we can do.”

Tiffany Lee-Youngren is a San Diego-based freelance writer and writes for the University of California, San Diego’s business and academic websites. She can be reached at tleeyoungren@ucsd.edu.

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