Kirst on the opportunities and challenges facing community colleges

October 21, 2010

After decades of flying under the radar, America's community colleges are moving to the front and center of national efforts to improve education.

Private foundations are launching major initiatives to strengthen community colleges across the country – including a $35 million competitive grant program recently announced by the Gates Foundation.

Earlier this month President Barack Obama launched a new work force development program that will involve partnerships between industry and community colleges in all 50 states. And the White House held its first-ever Summit on Community Colleges, focusing on the colleges' pivotal role in producing more college graduates and regaining our economic standing in the world.

These national initiatives present an enormous opportunity for California, whose 112 community colleges serve 2.75 million students annually – more than any other system of higher education. Obama has set a goal of 5 million more community college degrees by 2020, and to reach that target, the United States needs California.

But a slate of new research confirms that we're not on the right track. A study released Tuesday from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy reports that the vast majority of degree-seeking students in California's community colleges – a jaw-dropping 70 percent – fail to complete a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year university, even after six years.

Besides generating huge losses for taxpayers, that kind of attrition will lead to serious long-term problems for our state. Experts think that if California's higher education system doesn't improve, the state will be short 1 million college degrees by 2025, ultimately leading to the greatest drop in per-capita income in the nation.

As bad as the overall numbers are, they are even worse for minority students. Seventy-five percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students fail to complete a certificate or degree or transfer – an enormous problem given that the majority of minority college students get their start at community colleges. According to federally reported data, about 70 percent of college-going Hispanics in California attend community colleges, and that number will likely increase as the Hispanic school-age population continues to grow.

So why are California's community college completion rates so low? The reasons are complex, starting with the low skill levels of incoming students. About 90 percent require remediation in math and 75 percent in English. Those students can enter college, but must take remedial classes before they can take regular college-level classes that will count toward a degree.

The remediation problem is made worse by high schools and colleges that are not coordinated with each other and do a poor job of communicating with students. Many California students think that if they've graduated from high school and passed the exit exam, they are ready for community college. Not so.

Students face a whole new set of assessments when they enter college, and the process is far from user-friendly. Many students don't know about the tests and how important they are. They are shocked when they get the results and find they need to take years of remedial coursework. Worse, they get little individual counseling to help navigate the long road ahead.

A recent study from the University of Southern California finds major problems with the process of transferring from community college to a four-year university. Here students face more confusing and inconsistent requirements and again get too little counseling. Even when students know what classes to take, they often can't get them since the colleges are so overcrowded. Taken together, these many problems create a very leaky pipeline.

As disheartening as these research studies are, they also offer some enlightenment and hope. Colleges across the state are experimenting with new strategies to help struggling students succeed. These colleges offer good evidence that success is possible. They should be identified and studied so that other colleges can follow suit.

California's government also needs to make changes to promote student success in community colleges. A recently signed bill, Senate Bill 1440, will finally standardize many requirements for transferring to four-year universities, making it easier for students to navigate the process. But there's much more to be done, and it won't be easy. Local school boards control funding and make key policy decisions, so there isn't strong central leadership in the community college system. There's also far too little coordination with either the universities or the K-12 school system. Making matters worse is our state's fiscal standing. The next governor and Legislature won't have any new money to dangle in front of colleges. They will need to get tough and creative to stimulate needed reforms.

America's economy needs California's community colleges to succeed. To borrow a phrase that's still ringing in our ears, they're just too big to fail.