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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the August/September edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Michael Kearns is making an odd pitch to California community college students: Cross the Arizona border, get into a class.
“There’s no sense in having California students sitting on the sideline just because they can’t get into a class,” says Kearns, president of Mohave Community College (MCC) in Kingman, Ariz., on the border with California. “So we say, ‘If you want to come here, that’s great. Even if it’s just for one semester or one year until you can get a place at your local school, at least you won’t be wasting time.’”
It’s a good thing, too. Over the past few years, 300,000 students have been turned away from California community colleges. Those that remain jockey for classes with ever-narrower registration deadlines. City College of San Francisco may be forced to close its doors to its 90,000 students after a state investigation found that the administration hadn’t managed budget cuts well. Solano Community College in Fairfield canceled summer classes for the first time in its history due to lack of funding. The colleges are beyond capacity—way beyond capacity.
California is an extreme example, but community colleges across the country have turned away hundreds of thousands more students since the recession began.
A combination of downward pressure from four-year universities, which are raising tuition while accepting fewer students, more laid-off workers returning to colleges for retraining, and often double-digit reductions in state funding have schools struggling to accommodate the increase in the number of students seeking education.
The resulting crisis is forcing community colleges to innovate, reassess their core strategies, and revamp their programs while they continue to meet one of their most basic missions: to be open-door institutions that welcome every student who wants to learn, especially those who need considerable remedial work and counseling.
“Colleges are thinking carefully about what to do so that open door doesn’t close,” says Marie Foster Gnage, president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and chair of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors. “The open door looks like it’s being resized so access is not happening, but we are addressing that. We have to. People depend on us.”
Plans for the 21st century
Part of the capacity problem is ontological. Unlike four-year universities, whose mandate is single-minded—to graduate students with degrees—community colleges serve students who have a range of educational goals: those who want to transfer to four-year universities; those in need of specific workforce training; remedial students who enter college with educational or life challenges that leave them far behind their peers; and lifelong learners who may or may not be looking to earn a degree.
The budget crisis of the past few years has proved that community colleges can no longer be all things to all people, Foster Gnage says.
“We can’t do everything,” she says. “Yes, we do lots of things, and yes, what we are trying to do is make sure people are prepared for the workforce and prepared to move forward with higher education. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. We have to look at, ‘How do we partner with other groups to get them there?’”—while also making room for all students who want to attend.
What that means, says Foster Gnage, a member of AACC’s 21st-Century Commission for the Future of Community Colleges who now serves on its 21st-Century Initiative Implementation Steering Committee, is that community colleges must move students through the system faster. It might mean, for instance, that colleges consider a skill-level floor for remedial students, so that they come to community colleges more prepared to move through the system quickly. Or, it might mean focusing on course offerings that move students toward degrees or transfers to four-year universities, thus freeing up seats for new students.
The commission’s findings mirror much of what Foster Gnage suggests. The recommendations, released in April as part of a sweeping report, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future,” challenge community colleges to increase completion rates by 50 percent by 2020, reduce by half enrollment in remedial courses, refocus on workforce training that will result in jobs, and support more public-private partnerships to backfill revenue, among other directives.
“I’m very excited about the design that says, ‘You’re not leaving here without skills,’” Foster Gnage says. “We’re no longer laying out lots of different options—a little of this, a little of that. We are spreading a table designed to give you what you need and get you out the door.”
Righting remedial ed
Ernst Roberts, who served as interim president of El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas until last month when William Serrata was named its permanent president, remembers his shock when he was handed a survey of his student body as a part of the college’s Achieving the Dream grant. Ninety-three percent of his students scored below college level in math.
Rather than sit back, Roberts turned that shock to action. Today, local high school students take a college readiness test in their junior year, so they and their teachers know what they need to learn to be ready for college. Students who arrive at EPCC still in need of remedial work have access to campus-based math emporiums, where they can work at their own pace to catch up.
As a result, Roberts says the number of students requiring remedial math has dropped significantly, allowing more students to work through the system.
“It led to a lot of really good changes,” he says. “We intervene earlier so students don’t show up at our doorstep bogged down by years of developmental work.”
Other colleges have had similar success working with partners at the K–12 level. Long Beach City College (LBCC) in California created Long Beach College Promise, a program that works with Long Beach Unified School District students to make sure they’re prepared for college, providing them with a free semester at LBCC and guaranteed admission to the local California State University campus. The result is students who work their way through the system faster—when they can get the classes they need.
Hope on the horizon
There are signs that the community college capacity crisis is easing. Anecdotal reports suggest that an improving economy has already contributed to a slowdown in enrollment growth, and some colleges have empty seats again. Enrollment at EPCC dropped 13 percent last year. And more colleges, such as MCC in Arizona, already have room for new students.
Until the capacity crisis is over, though, colleges have no choice but to innovate, or else risk sacrificing the open-door ideal that has long been their calling card.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges