June 5, 2012

Access Versus Success

The open-door policy at community colleges is unique in American higher education. It's all about broad access and it has prepared hundreds of millions of people for entry into the work force or to transfer to four-year colleges. Community colleges serve about 30 percent of all students in higher education.

But now we have less state and local/county money available and that requires painful choices.

Add to that a nationwide effort that is supported by the Obama administration to boost education levels, speed up the time it takes to get through a program, and to use resources for degree programs rather than for basic and developmental (remedial) and ESL courses.

The focus has moved to getting students who are most likely to graduate in three years (the magic number of years for two-year schools - it's 6 years for 4-year schools).

Some stats: Community college three-year graduation rates average in the low 20 percent range and a good number, including PCCC, are below ten percent. In 2009, the last year for which the federal government has reported data, close to 400 community colleges had graduation rates less than 15 percent.

Many people see the future as as a time when access to all is not the mission of the community college.

Earlier this year, the American Association of Community Colleges reported that this national completion agenda is starting to affect community colleges.

"Community colleges are being hammered to increase graduation rates," says Gary D. Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, who also works with the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a research group. "One way to do that is to change the sort of student you serve."

What happens to the millions of low-income and minority students who look to attend community colleges every year, many of whom need remedial education first?

Nationally, more than 60 percent of students at two-year colleges are put into developmental education. Those students will usually take a year or more to catch up before taking their first college-level course. Unfortunately, many of them fail, or do not progress, and just drop out.

Although we spend more than $2-billion a year helping these students in English and mathematics skills (according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College) the results are not impressive and don't justify the expenditure to those who provide the funding.

At PCCC, we are looking to separate our ESL and developmental students (currently, about 75% of our student population) from the college-level prepared students. It makes sense if you are trying raise the rate of students who graduate in three years because the clock starts on a student as soon as they take classes. If they spend a year in ESL and another year in developmental studies, even if they shoot through their college classes in two years, it's a four year run.

PCCC and other schools are looking at approaches such as moving those non-college-level students to units such as Continuing Education. There they may get remediation in computer-based adaptive learning classes. 

There are also financial considerations. Students who take developmental and also college level courses several times without passing still pay tuition each time. We are getting five times a single tuition rate for that student to get through one class.

And the land of financial aid is changing too. Pell Grants, which many of our students obtain, are changing and it seems that if students use their aid for remediation, there will be nothing left for them when they reach college level.

Success is important. So is access. Can we have both, or do we need to choose?

Some other related thoughts:

Education for All? 2-Year Colleges Struggle to Preserve Their Mission

Is Privatization the Answer? http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/04/23/community-college-leaders-told-privatization-wave-future

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