Completion at What Price?

Technology and cost-cutting won’t fix the capacity crisis at community colleges, which is freezing out hundreds of thousands of students, warned the first report from a new faculty think tank.

The research center is affiliated with the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national group of faculty leaders, which was formed last year with the support of unions, faculty senates and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The center will attempt to inject a stronger voice from the professorate into the national debate over higher education, particularly around the campaign’s seven founding principles.

With its debut report, released today, the center takes on the “completion agenda” and its heavy emphasis on workforce development, a fixation that the report said threatens academic quality and student access, as well as social mobility.

The report, dubbed "Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who's not going to (community) college?" focused on California, where a state task force has successfully pushed for the system to prioritize students who appear most likely to earn a credential.

“Policy makers are narrowing the focus of community colleges to fulfilling a short-term work-force development role that prepares workers for relatively low-wage jobs rather than bachelor degree programs into which students could transfer,” according to the center. “This rebooting and narrowing the community college mission to the lower rungs of that economy works against expansion of the middle class and building a strong economy that, in the President’s words, is ‘built to last.’ ”

The report said the reason community colleges are being forced to turn away students is simple: They don’t have enough money because of state and federal disinvestment.

Gary Rhoades, the report’s author, said he empathizes with the plight of community college leaders. They are in a bind and generally bring good intentions to efforts like the task force-led reforms in California, he said. But all too often community colleges and their advocates cede to the supposed inevitability of budget cuts, as policy makers push for efficiency gains on campuses that are usually pipe dreams.

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