Report: Focus on motivated students

California community colleges, which raised tuition by a whopping 37 percent this year, continue to struggle with declining state revenues and rising student demand.  Nearly half of students can’t get the classes they need. Meanwhile, completion rates are so low that the cost per degree or certificate completed is 40 percent higher than the national average.

The California Community Colleges Task Force on Student Success recommends focusing scarce resources, such as financial incentives and registration priority, on first-time students and motivated students who choose an academic plan and make progress toward completion. The task force’s draft recommendations (pdf), called a system “reboot,” would move away from what the report calls “open access and limited success.”

That’s raised controversy, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Colleges should be graded on publicly available score cards that measure completion rates and other “student success” metrics, the task force said. And students who declare their program of study early and follow an academic work plan should be given priority in registering for classes – a key advantage for a system that turned 130,000 students away last year after a $300 million budget cut.

The Legislature created the task force to analyze performance-based funding, an issue the report ignores. State legislators are complaining about that, while faculty leaders question the focus on easy-to-educate students, reports Inside Higher Ed. But some college leaders are supporting the report.

Eloy Oakley, president and superintendent of Long Beach City College, said it’s time to rethink priorities.

For example, California’s funding formula typically allocates more money for enrollment growth, which Oakley said has long encouraged colleges to chase growth at the expense of quality. And various student enticements that are currently in place, like a tuition waiver for lower-income students, do not recognize academic progress.

“We’re rewarding the wrong types of behavior,” Oakley said.

The report suggests cutting off fee waivers for students who aren’t making academic progress  or those who’ve earned 110 credits and denying registration priority to students who’ve already earned 100 credits without completing a credential. 

“Policies that enable students to wander around the curriculum, withdraw and repeat classes multiple times, avoid services that could steer them along a productive pathway, and accumulate an unlimited number of units are a disservice to enrolled students and to those who can’t get into the system for lack of available classes,” according to the task force.

“The thinking here is that it’s time to free up that slot for someone else,” said Erik Skinner, the executive vice chancellor.

The focus on “success” will mean failure for the neediest students, warns Daniel Luzer in the Washington Monthly. The Obama administration’s college-completion agenda, and pressure from foundations that funded the task force, put the focus on graduating more students while “turning others out,” Luzer writes. “That’s not student success, that’s just institutional advancement.”

Even with fee hikes, California’s community colleges are among the cheapest in the nation.  But the state is very broke and will not recover any time soon. If colleges can’t afford to provide classes for everyone, priority should go to students who will take advantage of the opportunity and new students, who deserve a chance to prove themselves. Those who’ve had their chance and failed to use it should go on the wait list.
The report will be modified in response to public comments and presented to the Legislature and the state Board of Education in 2012.