Commentary

Community Colleges Asked To Do Too Much


By Ria Sengupta, research associate, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 14, 2007

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger chose a community college to stage the signing of an executive order last month. While higher education was only one component of the agreement, the signing location it is hoped signals a growing acknowledgement that improving the California Community College system is essential to building the educated workforce the state will demand during the next 20 years.

More than 70 percent of all public college students in California attend community colleges -- and it is the only higher education system in the state that broadly represents students of all ages, races and educational backgrounds. It is the leading pathway to higher education in California, and for many, the only viable one because of its affordability, flexible scheduling, variety of educational programs and enrollment policy that provides access to virtually anyone who wants to attend. The community college system is overwhelmingly the path Latinos and blacks follow to achieve higher education: Almost 80 percent of all Latino and black public college students in California attend a community college.

Ironically, these fundamental and laudable features -- open enrollment and a commitment to serving diverse populations and educational goals -- are also at the root of some of the system's most daunting challenges. The all-inclusive system is strained beneath the weight of playing too many roles, and if it is to help feed the state's mounting need for a skilled workforce (California is not expected to meet demand for college-educated workers by 2020, if trends persist), policymakers must look beyond access and evaluate what students are achieving.

The community college system's many missions include providing the academic training required to transfer to four-year institutions; awarding associate's degrees; and providing vocational, English-as-a-Second-Language, remedial and adult noncredit courses. But as many as half of all vocational students and one-third of those focused on transferring to four-year colleges, leave the system after one year. Although some of these students may have achieved what they set out to -- such as acquiring a particular skill for career advancement -- the completion rates remain troubling, especially when compared to the rest of the nation. Only one-quarter of students who focus on transfer courses in their first year transfer to four-year institutions, and an even smaller percentage, who focus on associate degree courses in their first year, earn that degree or transfer.

Then there are the racial and ethnic disparities. Latino and black students are significantly less likely to earn an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution than are students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, the transfer rate for Asian and Pacific Islander students is double what it is for Latino and black students. This is especially troublesome in a state where Latinos are expected to comprise a majority of the population by 2025.

Why do so many students fall short of completing their educational goals? The community college system is faced with the task of providing higher education to students who are the least prepared for it -- and with far less funding than the University of California, California State University, or K-12 public education systems receive.

Community college students often enter the system without the high-school education needed to succeed in college-level courses and must enroll in basic skills or remedial courses, lengthening the time needed to achieve their goals. Many community college students cannot devote full attention to studying because of full-time work and family schedules. Community college students are often first-generation college students, who do not have the same familial support or comfort level with the workings of higher education that four-year college students do. Students don't know how to navigate the system and their uncertainty is exacerbated by severely inadequate counseling and support services: 1 counselor per 1,200 students. Expanding or refocusing services, such as academic counseling, child care and transportation, will likely prove vital for this student population to succeed after entering college.

Broad access to higher education is something California desperately needs -- and the community college system has achieved an impressive level of accessibility. Now it's time to shift gears and focus on improving student outcomes to ensure that this all-embracing system is able to live up to its rich potential.

Community college officials and state policymakers have already begun to emphasize results by implementing statewide reporting requirements on outcomes such as degree and certificate rates, transfer rates, retention rates and course-completion rates.

As California's most well-traveled road to higher education, community colleges should be receiving a level of support and attention that matches their enormous responsibility -- our future may depend on it.

Publications

California's Community College Students

Evaluating Academic Programs in California's Community Colleges

Financing California's Community Colleges