Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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

Will community colleges only benefit those who are "best prepared" for college? What are your thoughts on this article?

The open-door policy at community colleges is unique in American higher education. It allows all comers—a retired grandmother, an Army veteran, a laid-off machinist—to learn a skill or get a credential. That broad access—the bedrock of the community-college system—has prepared hundreds of millions of people for transfer to four-year colleges or entry into the work force.
But these days, the sector finds itself in a fight to save that signature trademark. As budgets dwindle and the pressure to graduate more students grows, community-college educators from instructors to presidents worry about the future. Less state and local money is making its way to college coffers, prompting painful choices. And the clarion call for the sector to produce more graduates, part of a nationwide effort to boost education levels, has forced colleges to use scarce resources for degree programs rather than for remedial courses.
The focus now is on the best-prepared students, and not on those who may never graduate. Community colleges foresee a day when access to all is no longer the norm but the exception.
"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." Such a shift would profoundly affect the millions of low-income and minority students who look to attend community colleges every year, many of whom need remedial education first.
In a report in February, the American Association of Community Colleges sounded the alarm on how the national completion agenda is starting to affect community colleges. "In policy conversations," it said, "there is a silent movement to redirect educational opportunity to those students deemed 'deserving.' "
That is an uncomfortable thought for a sector that prides itself on being all things to all people all the time: offering English-language classes for immigrants and enrichment programs for senior citizens. But early evidence suggests that some community colleges are already making judgment calls about whom they educate, and how.
Many of those decisions center on remedial education, long an obstacle to improving graduation rates. Academically unprepared students are usually required to enroll in a sequence of remedial courses to get ready for college-level work. More than 60 percent of students at two-year colleges are steered into developmental education, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. Because a considerable number of students place into the bottom rung of those courses, it tends to take them a year or more to complete the sequence. Many fail, or do not progress, and just drop out.
Labeling low-level remedial courses a "dead end" has become some administrators' rationale for eliminating them.
As priorities shift, remedial students are not the only targets. College officials say they feel pressure to scale back or cut other programs that don't lead directly to certificates or associate degrees. Among those are English as a second language and general-equivalency diploma courses. For those services, colleges are redirecting students to other providers: public schools, libraries, nonprofits, and local government agencies.
Such changes are difficult, but as budgets shrink and pressure grows—along with enrollment—they may be inevitable. Yet such new policies, some administrators argue, will compromise the many missions of community colleges.
At the same time, demographic shifts are likely to result in more community-collegegoers. Right now, nearly half of all minority undergraduates attend a community college, according to their association, and the U.S. Census projects that minority populations are growing. Many of those future students will probably turn to community colleges.
They will need an open door, says Kay M. McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. "The students who we turn away are the demographic future of America."

Opportunities Denied

It is already hard to enroll at some community colleges. More than 400,000 prospective students have been denied that opportunity because of institutions' budget-driven moves to limit academic programs and restrict enrollment.
California is a case in point. The community-college system there is one of the largest in the country, with 2.6 million students, or nearly 25 percent of enrollment in the sector nationwide. And it is facing severe budget cuts: The state has slashed its appropriations by 13 percent over the last three years. As a result, the California Community Colleges have had to offer fewer courses, says Jack Scott, the system's chancellor.
"We are being forced to ration enrollment," Mr. Scott says.
In January a panel convened by the system to improve students' success released a set of 22 recommendations, some of which straddle the line between promoting success and limiting access. One measure will give priority in registering for classes to students who have taken a placement test, participated in orientation, and developed an educational plan. All students must identify a program of study within three semesters, or they will lose that priority, Mr. Scott says.
Those and other policies will give spots to the most likely graduates. An associate degree takes 60 credits; students who have accumulated more than 110 credits, excluding ESL and remedial courses, will find themselves at the end of the registration line.
"Too many students are just lingering in the system," says Mr. Scott. Their seats, he says, could be occupied by those who are more serious.
But limiting access isn't the right way to think of that, Mr. Scott insists. "We are prioritizing access," he says.
Community colleges like those in the California system are in a quandary. Across the country, two-year colleges face a charge to graduate more students but have little money to do it.
The Obama administration put the sector front and center in its plan for all Americans to obtain at least one year of postsecondary education or training. Other groups are on board—the National Governors Association, the Lumina Foundation for Education, Complete College America—and the recognition of community colleges is on the rise.
But the push comes as the federal government hasn't followed through on a promise of more money for the sector. In 2009 the administration proposed spending $12-billion to rebuild crumbling facilities, improve remedial education, raise the number of students who graduate and transfer to four-year colleges, and forge stronger ties between colleges and employers. But the plan, known as the American Graduation Initiative, was gutted during negotiations over legislation to overhaul student-aid programs and the nation's health-care system. The law that ultimately passed left community colleges with only $2-billion for a career-training program administered by the Department of Labor.
President Obama's budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year includes $8-billion for a Community College to Career Fund, but Congress is unlikely to pass a budget until after the election in November.
That leaves community colleges to fend for themselves financially. It probably also means more cuts in programs and services, more students shut out of classes due to lack of classroom space, and more tuition and fee increases.
"I know no reasonable person who thinks that if we just hold our breath through this recession that the money will roll back in," says Ms. McClenney, of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
She worries about where students, especially those from vulnerable populations, will go if a community college can't give them the help they need. The place she fears most, she says: "the curb."

Remediating a Problem

If raising graduation rates is the goal, remediation is the biggest hurdle. Nationally, two-year colleges spend more than $2-billion a year helping students improve their English and mathematics skills, according to Community College Research Center at Teachers College. Many institutions have little to show for that effort: Fewer than 25 percent of students who enroll in remedial courses make it to graduation, the center says.
That has been considered a waste of time and money—both students' and colleges'. Administrators working with limited budgets and fed up with dismal graduation rates are trying new tactics.
At Jackson Community College, in Michigan, students who test below a seventh-grade reading level are referred to remedial programs elsewhere, such as public agencies like South Central Michigan Works.
Sending students elsewhere—and cutting their tie to a college—is risky, says Carol Lincoln, a senior vice president at Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing college degrees.
"That may be practical and economically smart," she says. "But it's a problem if that is all we are doing and we don't create a bridge for those students to come back to us.
Other colleges are taking a different approach, beginning with a philosophical shift: acknowledging that some students just aren't prepared for the rigors of college-level work. At Palo Alto College, in San Antonio, administrators have become more realistic over time, says Ana Margarita Guzman, its president. "We did everything we could do to help students," she says, recalling years past, "but sometimes it still wasn't enough."
Now the college is trying to identify students with good academic potential and redirect others. Before taking placement tests, students are required to enroll in a free, two-week, test-preparation course. "Now we have students skipping two or even three courses," Ms. Guzman says.
But not every student does well on the placement test; some have entered the college with very low academic skills. Palo Alto encourages those students to pursue work-force-related certificate programs, which don't require remedial coursework first—and allow for a quick transition into employment.
The certificate programs must be tied to an associate degree, administrators decided, because they hope students will return to the college. "What we have found is that maturity helps and that success in the workplace builds confidence, which helps students to succeed when they come back to restart their academic careers," Ms. Guzman says.
Such approaches are recasting the sector's role in economic terms, to fuel work-force development, says Mr. Rhoades, of the Center for the Future of Higher Education. He is skeptical of that, calling it an unsafe "rebooting" of community colleges.
Concentrating more on job training, Mr. Rhoades says, and less on, say, providing the general-education courses needed by students planning to transfer, narrows the sector's educational purpose.

Shifting Missions

The notion that community colleges will continue to serve all types of students is starting to slip away. More institutions these days are focusing on one of two so-called core missions: training students for the work force with quick certificates or associate degrees, or preparing them for transfer to higher levels of education.
That leaves less room for many other missions: to educate English language learners, for example, or people pursuing a general-equivalency diploma. Even senior citizens are being squeezed out. At Wor-Wic Community College, in Maryland, "senior only" classes are no more. Money used for them has been redirected to support services to help students graduate, says Murray K. Hoy, the college's president.
Moves like those threaten the important local role community colleges have long played. In many ways, the institutions are the lifeblood of small cities and towns. They have offered a rich array of resources, including entrepreneurial programs, Zumba dance classes, arts festivals, and citizenship preparation.
But it's increasingly difficult to keep being everything to everybody. Recent changes at San Joaquin Delta College, in Stockton, Calif., have been agonizing, says Matthew Wetstein, interim vice president for instruction. The college has seen its share of state money slashed by roughly 25 percent since 2009. Another reduction of about $5-million is expected in the next academic year. Those crippling cuts have forced San Joaquin Delta to perform a "cold, deliberate cost-benefit analysis," he says.
As a result, community music and arts classes, as well as recreational programs for senior citizens, are no longer available at the college. The general-equivalency-diploma program is gone, as are the lowest levels of English as a second language. The college now refers students seeking such services to its continuing-education department, or to the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
All this has created a bit of a furor among faculty who see the moves as rationing access, by focusing too exclusively on students poised to earn certificates or degrees. Some instructors have argued that students who want to learn English as a survival skill, to communicate with co-workers or doctors, should be able to do that at the college, says Mr. Wetstein.
But policy makers and associations want to see a single figure: completions. How many students graduated? How many didn't? It's hard to measure people's personal and social development. "The traditional benchmarks for success don't apply," he says.
The intangibles that community colleges offer, Mr. Wetstein says, are being lost in the completion movement led by the Obama administration and nonprofit groups.
"The community is being stripped out of community college," he says. "It's incredibly painful to watch."

1 comment:

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