An open door to debt?

Community colleges provide an open door — to failure and debt, argues Community Colleges and the Access Effect  by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson.  Scherer, an English professor at St. Louis Community College, specializes in developmental education. Anson, a former remedial writing instructor, runs the University of Iowa’s Upward Bound Project.

Poorly prepared students have little chance of success, write Scherer and Anson. Raising admissions requirements would strengthen academic classes for prepared students and protect the unprepared from debt.

Open-door admissions can perpetuate inequity, the authors tell Inside Higher Ed‘s Paul Fain in an e-mail interview. One mentors a a brain-damaged young man who was shot in the head when he was 16. He enrolled in community college, failed all his courses and went into debt that made him ineligible for a job training program. He works part-time for $7.35 an hour.

As students’ skills and ability levels declined, community colleges designed lengthy remedial sequences, Scherer and Anson write. Some “credit-bearing coursework . . .  is equal to standard kindergarten fare.”

The national college completion agenda movement is threatening academic standards, they charge. Advocates also blame remedial courses for high failure rates, ignoring “the monumental impact of academic preparation, aptitude and student motivation on completion.”

The rise of performance-based funding puts more pressure on community colleges to lower standards in order to raise completion rates, they add. That will make community college graduates unemployable in a competitive workforce.

“Reasonable entrance standards, coupled with a more compassionate approach to advising and enrolling community college students” will help students succeed, they argue.

 Some current degree-seeking students would thrive more — completion-wise and financially — in apprenticeships and job-training programs than they would in traditional two- or four-year degree programs.

Some are in desperate need of short-term training programs to financially stabilize them so that one day they might return and succeed in a more traditional degree program. Instead of repeatedly enrolling in and failing developmental education coursework aimed at eventually qualifying students for college-level coursework, many persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, are truly in need of affordable postsecondary programs to assist them in developing a career plan and independent living skills, including learning to manage their money and their personal safety and health, for example.

A few community colleges now require students to test at the seventh-grade level or above.

Community colleges are about second chances, responds Matt Reed. We don’t know who will take advantage of the opportunity before they try. And the alternatives for students who are turned away are very bleak.

GED + job training = motivation

Louisiana has shifted adult basic education from high schools to community colleges: Unemployed and underemployed adults can train for skilled jobs while studying for a GED through the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s (LCTCS) Work Ready U, reports Community College Times.

Most Work Ready U students are training for jobs in construction trades and welding or health care jobs, such as nursing assistants, phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.

Delgado Community College (DCC) now has 2,500 students in adult basic education, compared to 500 in 2007-08.  DCC is one of 10 Louisiana community colleges in Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity program. “There is no reason why a student should need a GED before they start on a career pathway,” said Barbara Endel, national project director for Accelerating Opportunity.

Traditional adult ed courses didn’t provide enough structure and support, said LCTCS Chancellor Joe May.

When ABE was administered by the K-12 education system, it was run on an “open-entry, open-exit approach,” May said. That didn’t work so well with people who had dropped out of school, so there were high attrition rates.

. . . Work Ready U programs limit the number of people who come in at any one time and provide extra counseling and social services. Also, switching GED courses to community colleges allowed for more flexible scheduling, including evening hours, which are more convenient for adults with families and jobs.

“Pushing someone to get a GED requires a ton of effort, particularly for adults with families,” said DCC Chancellor Monty Sullivan. However, it’s worth the effort. More Work Ready U students are enrolling in credit-bearing courses. On average, they are less likely to drop out than regular students.

Last year Congress dropped Pell Grant eligibility for  high school dropouts who passed an “ability-to-benefit” test. To keep Work Ready U on track, DCC turned to foundations to fund tuition aid.

The workforce development fantasy

President Obama focused on the workforce development mission of community colleges in his State of the Union Speech, calling on community colleges to train two million skilled workers for unfilled jobs.

The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan flew to Florida to praise job training programs at Tallahassee Community College.

Workforce development is the flavor of the month, writes Community College Dean. But it’s not as easy as politicians think to turn out skilled workers.

The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.

There are always a few local employers who need workers who can be trained quickly, the dean writes. But those jobs get filled by the first or second cohort of trainees.

Many would-be workers need literacy or English as a Second Language classes. Community colleges’ developmental track is geared towards getting students into a degree program.  Adult Basic Education is a better fit, but often is underfunded and can’t meet the demand.

The dean’s advice:

If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer. . . . Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

The second word in “community college” is “college,” the dean points out. Community colleges are in danger of being defined purely as job training centers.

Aid rules boost attrition rate

Provide student aid for basic English classes to help immigrant students and cut attrition rates, Community College Dean writes.

Adult Basic Education students aren’t eligible for financial aid and often end up on long wait lists trying to get into basic ESL classes. Students who declare they’re seeking a degree can get aid to take remedial and credit-bearing English as a Second Language classes without a wait. That encourages immigrants to declare they’re seeking a degree, take a few classes to learn the skills they need and then leave.  They’re counted as drop-outs.

When I’ve asked the ESL department about their attrition numbers, they’ve responded that many of the students never really meant to get a degree in the first place.

Um, okay, but there’s this pesky issue of financial aid fraud, not to mention legislators looking askance at what appear to be distressingly high attrition rates…

If the ABE programs were eligible for financial aid, we wouldn’t have this problem. Students who just wanted to learn enough English to talk to their children’s teachers and get along at work could take the ABE courses honestly, and the credit-bearing ESL courses would be reserved for students who are actually trying to get degrees.

Funding  easy-access English classes for immigrants would pay off in increased productivity, the dean argues. Why make people wait to learn the skills that will enable them to integrate into society?

Scaling up programs for low-skilled adults

Five Breaking Through community colleges have redesigned basic skills education to help low-skilled adults earn job credentials, reports Jobs for the Future in Achieving Ambitious Goals.

“Low-skilled adults” perform below the eighth-grade level on reading and math tests, though some have a high school diploma or GED.  Breaking Through colleges use four strategies — accelerating basic-skills instruction, offering comprehensive support services, connecting classes with employers and jobs, creating college and career pathways — to design programs customized to local needs.

>>Durham Technical Community College: 66 percent of Breaking Through students moved up to grade 9.0 or higher from 6.0 to 8.9 based on TABE scores, versus 56 percent of a comparison group. In math, 52 percent of Breaking Through students moved up to grade 9.0 or higher from 6.0 to 8.9, versus 41 percent of the comparison group. In reading, 63 percent of Breaking Through students moved up to grade 9.0 or higher from 6.0 to 8.9, versus 48 percent of the comparison group.

>>Lake Michigan College: 94 percent of Breaking Through scaling-up students completed the initial program they enrolled in, versus 62 percent of those in a comparison group; 94 percent completed a College Success course with a grade of C or better, versus 21 percent of the comparison group.

>>Owensboro Community & Technical College: 36 percent of Breaking Through students completed all phases of a career pathway; 26 percent earned a certificate.

>>Pamlico Community College: 84 percent of Breaking Through students completed Phase 1 of the career pathway, passing three GED tests; 66 percent of Breaking Through students completed the GED, or Phase 2 of the career pathway.

>>Tacoma Community College: 31 percent of Breaking Through students earned college-level credits within two quarters, versus 4 percent in the comparison group.

The report looks at how programs can be expanded to reach more low-skilled adults.

Adult-education advocates lobbied Congress for more funding on Monday, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

A policy paper, “The Return on Investment (ROI) From Adult Education and Training,” also released on Monday, contends that billions of dollars could be earned, saved, and pumped back into the struggling economy as a result of investments in programs for work-force development.

McGraw-Hill Research Foundation and the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education produced the report.