Retention’s up, enrollment’s down

Determined to raise retention rates, Klamath Community College mandated orientation and advising and eliminated late registration, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. The cost of improved retention was lower enrollment. The small college in southern Oregon saw enrollment fall 20 parent last fall, cutting state funds by $800,000,  more than 7 percent of Klamath’s total annual budget.

“We have a system that doesn’t reward student success,” said Roberto Gutierrez, the college president. “It rewards seat time.”

Klamath Community College is an Achieving the Dream partner institution.

Achieving the Dream is a vocal supporter of “make it mandatory,” a refrain often used by Kay McClenney, an expert on community colleges and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. McClenney, backed by research, argues that mandatory orientations and advising can boost student retention rates.

For example, prior to last year, only 50 percent of students at Klamath were attending orientation. College officials said that means those students were missing out on vital information about the college and how to navigate it.

Yet many colleges resist the mandatory approach, feeling it is paternalistic and too prescriptive for the large numbers of adult students who attend community colleges, where the average age of students typically hovers around 25. And red tape and hassles, like mandatory scheduling, can discourage students who may have been on the fence about attending college in the first place.

Students who can’t make the time to go to orientation or meet with an advisor probably won’t make the time for college classes, Gutieriez believes.

Banning late registration is hard adult students, who are juggling jobs and family duties. But it’s clear that late registrants have very high failure rates.

Klamath’s new policy “resembles recent decisions by a few for-profits, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which have created free trial periods” for prospective students, Fain writes. Those who realize they’re not ready for college can quit without using up financial aid, running up debt — or raising the university’s failure statistics.

Klamath’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time students is only 17 percent; another 31 percent transfers. That could improve in the future: Fall-to-winter retention rates jumped from 60 percent for first-year students to 80 percent this year.

Outsourcing community college

California is outsourcing community college classes to the for-profit sector, writes Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times.  Students will pay more for less, he predicts.

Students who can’t get a course they need at their community college can take it at Kaplan University — for a lot more money. Even with a 42 percent discount, Kaplan charges $646 for a three-credit class; the community college, if it had space in the class, would charge $78.

Angered by the deal, community college officials have resisted talking with Kaplan to ensure credits will be good at students’ home colleges, Hiltzik reports.

If the student transfers to a four-year college or university, there’s no guarantee the Kaplan credits will be accepted.

Put simply, the Legislature has cheaped out on the community college system. The 112-college system, which serves nearly 3 million Californians, sustained a budget cut of $520 million, or 8% of its budget, in 2009-10. Course sections were reduced by 5% statewide, (Chancellor Jack) Scott’s office says, with as many as half of new students trying to enroll in a class being turned away at some campuses.

“The state put us in the position where we cannot serve our students,” Jane Patton, an instructor at Santa Clara’s Mission College who is head of the system’s academic senate, told me, “and it’s getting worse by the year.”

Kaplan has used the deal with the community college system as a seal of approval for its classes. But it’s not clear the for-profit offers a quality education, Hiltzik writes.

Kaplan is accused by former faculty members in a federal lawsuit in Florida of recruiting possibly unqualified students, pumping up their grades to keep them enrolled, and giving its own employees “scholarships” to keep the school’s federal aid ratio below 90%. Kaplan calls the accusations “baseless” and “totally without merit.”

If community colleges were funded to meet student demand, there’d be no need to send students to “institutions that keep one eye on academics and the other on the main chance,” Hiltzik writes.

True enough. But it’s also true that community colleges enroll many unqualified students who never complete a degree or certificate. Transfer students often discover their credits aren’t good in the California State University and University of California system.

California is so broke that there’s no chance the state will come up with more higher education funding.  The only way for community colleges to meet students’ needs is to raise tuition, which is still the lowest in the nation, to pay for more classes.  If the colleges imitate the for-profits’ scheduling — designed for working adults –  and add online coursework, they’ll be able to compete for students.

In another column, Hiltzik points out that University of California Regent Richard Blum, a billionaire investor, owns a firm holding $700 million in stock in two for-profit higher education companies, Career Education Corp. and ITT Educational Services Inc. Blum is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.