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Should community colleges be paid only for students who complete courses?


VENTURA COUNTY STAR.  FEBRUARY 10, 2013.  Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood in south Oxnard and been raised in a family from which no one before her had ever gone to college, Ventura College English instructor Amy Madsen got her start in higher education at a community college.

As a result, she has a special empathy for the travails of the students who have shown up in her classroom every semester for the past 23 years.

“These are not conventional college kids,” she says. “They’re unprepared in so many ways.”

Madsen has watched as some version of the same story has played out every semester. Her writing class begins with the maximum 27 students, often with a couple of extra ones squeezed in, sometimes with a waiting list. As the weeks progress, the class slowly thins out. By the end, Madsen estimates, an average of 17 to 20 students have stuck it out and completed the course.

“I’ve ended a semester with as few as 11 or 12,” she says. “It’s pretty dismal.”

Whether the students complete the course or not, however, Ventura College and the state’s other 111 community colleges get more than 90  percent of their state funding based on how many students were enrolled in courses about a month into each semester.

At a time when community college enrollment is being squeezed, classroom space is precious and state funding is tight, Gov. Jerry Brown has rekindled a long-running debate about whether the funding formula should be based instead on how many students actually complete their courses. In his budget plan for next year, Brown is proposing that such a shift be phased in over five years.

The idea is to provide an incentive to colleges to try to get more students to complete courses, and the plan would redirect whatever money is lost in a college’s base funding into targeted funds to be spent on tutoring, counseling and other services to help students make sound choices about what classes to take and to be better prepared to see them through.

The proposal comes at a time when demand for classroom space is such that 133,000 first-time students in the 2009-10 school year were unable to register for any of the courses they needed because of excess demand, a statewide task force reports.

“It’s a fairness issue,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Brown administration’s Department of Finance. “How fair is it when you’re a student who can’t get into the classes you need to complete a degree?”

Meanwhile, he notes, “The state is paying community colleges for students who aren’t there.”

A statewide survey taken a few years ago showed the average course-completion rate to be about 85 percent, with wide variations among districts, largely depending on the socioeconomic conditions of their communities.

The issue raises anew the special challenges and circumstances of California’s great exercise in egalitarian educational democracy. Its community colleges take all comers. There are no admission applications; not even a high school diploma is required.

As Moorpark College President Pam Eddinger puts it, community college administrators “don’t have any control over the front end of the funnel.”

Enormous numbers of Californians seize that unqualified opportunity. A statewide Student Success Task Force convened in 2011 reports that community colleges provide instruction each year to 2.6 million students who make up “the most diverse student population in the nation.”

The colleges provide a gateway for success, but fewer than half of the students succeed.

On the one hand, more than a quarter of University of California graduates and more than half of California State University alumni got their start toward a bachelor’s degree by transferring from a community college. On the other, the task force reports, only 41 percent of students who start out at a community college with the hope of transferring to a four-year university succeed.

The proposal to change the community college funding formula is part of a broader initiative launched by Brown to increase efficiency in higher education. He is also seeking incentives for universities to increase their use of online instruction; recommending that universities cap the number of course units students can accumulate without graduating and still receive a state subsidy for their education; and encouraging efforts to get students to complete their degrees in four years.

But questions remain about whether community colleges ought to be subjected to some of the same outcome-based incentives directed toward other educational institutions.

“Any time you look at accountability measures, who’s against accountability?” said Ventura County Community College District Chancellor Jamillah Moore. “It’s a noble goal, but it’s not like flipping a light switch.”

Moore notes that community colleges already are engaged in a wide-ranging student success initiative, guided by both the task force report and by legislation signed by Brown last year.

She believes colleges need an opportunity to implement those plans, which are designed to increase matriculation to universities and improve course access for their highest-priority students.

“That’s huge for us,” Moore said. “There needs to be an opportunity to see how all of that is implemented.”

Dan Troy, vice chancellor for fiscal policy in the state Community College Chancellor’s Office, called Brown’s proposal “a big policy issue being proposed as part of the budget.”

He suggests the issue might be better examined outside the budget process.

“It’s very clear that the Legislature, our board of governors and the governor are all concerned about student success and completion,” he said. “Whether that gets addressed in the budget is uncertain.”

In its analysis of the proposal, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office advises lawmakers to consider other outcome-based funding models that would reward districts based on how many students complete their programs, rather than simply finish individual courses.

“We are concerned that the governor’s census-data proposal could create potential unintended consequences in the classroom, such as grade inflation or reductions in course rigor,” the analysis says.

Moorpark College Academic Senate President Riley Dwyer shares that concern.

“It would lead to looser standards, absolutely,” she said.

Those with real-world experience dealing with the challenges of community college students also assert that Brown’s proposal embodies an idea that comes from an ivory tower.

“On paper, it just sounds lovely,” said Madsen, the Ventura College English instructor.

She notes that students often drop classes for reasons unrelated to how they are faring in class, reasons that are out of the control of teachers or college administrators.

“If you have to choose between your job and the class, clearly you’re going to choose your job,” Madsen said. “If you have to choose staying home with your sick kid and the class, you’re going to choose your kid.

“Some kids know what they want to do, enroll in college and follow a straight line. The zigzaggy ones are the ones in community college. The zigzag could have been a drug problem, it could have been a learning disability, or it could be just that they’re 18 years old. Community college has always been the place for them.”

Moorpark College President Eddinger said she is hopeful that Brown’s proposal, coming early in the budget process, will lead to meaningful consideration of potential incentives to promote better student outcomes.

“He is very good at raising an issue and then driving really thoughtful discussions about that issue,” she said of the governor.

Any discussion, Eddinger said, will have to acknowledge the community colleges’ historical role as a universal pathway to higher education for nontraditional students.

“By the time they commit to entering the classroom, the amount of courage it has taken to get there is huge,” she said. “Some students don’t finish. Some students succeed the second time. That’s why we’re here.”