Blog: Community College System Can’t Handle More Responsibility

By Kevin Kuzma

Normally, the quotations included in a press release say absolutely nothing. They are words inserted between squiggle marks, and from that standpoint, they technically fit the description of quotation. What they mostly pass along, though, rather than information is carefully worded fluff.

I know this because I have received them by the hundreds of thousands in my career. The best press release writers do manage to say something. But trust me, the best are few and far between, and even then their clients need to be aloof, having awarded them a surprising amount of creative freedom.

That said, I found a press release yesterday that was about a year old, almost to the day. On Oct. 21, 2009, the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Cal State Sacramento (IHELP) issued a report titled, “Steps to Success: Analyzing Milestone Achievement to Improve Community College Student Outcomes.” Oddly enough, I came across the release while researching another IHELP study that was covered in a Los Angeles Times article we sent out in our daily news blast yesterday. The article was titled Community Colleges Not Preparing California’s Future Workforce, Study Says.

Yesterday’s Times story said IHELP had found 70 percent of students seeking degrees at California’s community colleges did not manage to attain them or transfer to four-year universities within six years. That is a scary number, but it’s even worse when put in perspective. From the year-old press release I dug up, here’s a quote from Nancy Shulock, executive director of IHELP:

“The community colleges are vital to the future social and economic health of California. And with nearly one-fourth of the nation’s community college students enrolled in the California system, these colleges are also crucial to the success of national efforts to restore America’s position among nations.”

In case you missed it, let me restate the important statistic Shulock offers in that quotation: nearly one-fourth of the nation’s community college students are enrolled in the California system.

Before the Obama administration pushes forward with its plan to make community colleges the nation’s source for career training, it might want to look at some numbers. IHELP’s more recent research offers jaw-dropping stats about the inadequacy of California’s community college system. According to Tuesday’s report, most students who failed to obtain a degree at a California-based community college or transfer in six years eventually dropped out; only 15 percent were still enrolled. The findings also showed another significant shortcoming: of the 250,000 students researchers tracked between 2003 and 2009, only about 40 percent had earned at least 30 college credits. The 30-credit mark is the minimum needed to provide an economic boost in jobs that require some college experience.

If there was any hope that community colleges were somehow more beneficial to minority students, the study dashed those hopes, too. Researchers noted only 26 percent of black students and 22 percent of Latino students had completed a degree or certificate or transferred after six years. This compares to 37 percent of whites and 35 percent of Asian Pacific Islanders.

Some of you might find those stats more shocking. But I was not aware that California community colleges represented such a large portion of our nation’s community college system. If California’s community colleges are missing the mark, what would make the Obama administration think the system is ready for a transition? The President hasn’t set out a plan like this, but it’s clearly his intent.

We all know where the U.S. Department of Education’s “gainful employment” initiative is going. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is carrying out an objective to denigrate for-profit education so that Title IV dollars can be redirected to community colleges. The reasoning involves the administration’s general distrust of profit-motivated entities. With statistics like the ones included in Tuesday’s report, how can the President feel they can handle different responsibilities?

I’m wondering what makes the DOE knows that we don’t. What evidence do they have that makes them feel community colleges are better suited for a role our schools clearly fulfill better? Why completely alter a system that’s clearly working – that hundreds of thousands of Americans are choosing to attend over their neighborhood community college? Granted, it’s clear some reform might be needed among our sector’s larger school conglomerates, but surely going about correcting the issues that have been upturned would be easier than transferring the work of an entire sector to an outmoded and perceptibly flawed community college system.

After reviewing these numbers, even a novice would take issue with a plan to take away career-training efforts from a sector that has done it for a century – and done it well – and shift it to schools that are struggling more now than any other time in their history. Until the President announces his intentions and presents a clear plan that shows some impressive research to contradict IHELP’s, this situation will continue to be a disaster in waiting. We’ll likely hear about his plans first through a press release – and we’re looking forward to reading his carefully worded fluff.


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