California’s community colleges’ new push to improve graduation and transfer rates

Courtesy of EdSource | Mikhail Zinshteyn

The California Community Colleges must do a much better job preparing Californians for the state’s future workforce, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in advance of an important vote to approve ambitious new goals for the 114-college system.

“There is a clear need for more workers to gain access to the skills and credentials,” Oakley said in an interview. “And if we (the community colleges) can’t organize ourselves in a way that catches up with that demand, then we are going to make ourselves irrelevant.”

Oakley’s challenge precedes a meeting Monday in Sacramento of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors which will be voting on a new vision document detailing how the state’s largest educator of college students will both prepare and graduate the workers of tomorrow.

California’s community colleges educate more than 2 million students. In 2016 just 48 percent of students who enrolled at a California community college left with a degree, certificate, or transferred after six years.

If approved and carried out, the plan could lead to more Californians with two- or four-year degrees entering the workforce. A recent report calculated that the state needs 1.1 million additional workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 to remain economically competitive. There are national implications, too, as fully a fifth of the nation’s community college students are in California.

A challenge to carrying out policy reforms, however, is that while the board of governors — which together with the chancellor’s office oversee the $8.6 billion the state funds for community colleges — could adopt a vision statement, much of the power in the community college system lies with the 72 different community college districts that each have locally elected boards of trustees. And though the chancellor’s office can set policy, it’s up to the local boards to carry out those plans. Improving transfer rates, for example, vary widely school to school.

The goals laid out in the document range from increasing student completion of degrees to the ease with which students can access the courses they need to finish their studies. By 2022, the document calls for:

  • A 20 percent increase in the number of community college students who acquire associate’s degrees, specific skillsets, credentials or certificates “that prepare them for an in-demand job;”
  • A 35 percent increase in the number of community college students transferring annually to a University of California or California State University campus;
  • Increase from 60 percent to 69 percent the number of students completing career and technical education programs who get jobs in their fields of study.

Some proposals have different or no timelines:

  • Closing the gaps in completion and college transfer between different racial and ethnic groups completely within 10 years.
  • Improve how colleges use software and data to both enroll students and help them enroll in relevant classes.
  • Lobby the Legislature and other state agencies to change state financial aid formulas so that full-time workers and parents can receive grant money to attend college part-time.

The vision document is the brainchild of Oakley, who became chancellor Dec. 19, 2016, the first Latino to hold the post.

Roughly 50 business leaders, faculty members, community college administrators, legislators, students, and social justice and labor groups weighed in to shape the report’s recommendations. Hundreds of comments were also submitted by people who participated in a “Virtual Town Hall” on the challenges facing the community colleges. The report itself is unusual because it tackles broader themes beyond just accountability benchmarks.

The board is expected to accept the document during the Monday meeting. A discussion will follow at the July 18 meeting on ways to implement it.

Another meeting, likely in September, will hammer out a timeline for introducing the document’s various goals and commitments. While some of the ideas may come to fruition at the start of the 2017-18 school year, Oakley predicts “the major implementation steps will happen in 2018 and beyond.”

The vision statement builds on the community colleges’ Student Success Initiative that also sought to increase the share of community college students earning degrees and transferring to four-year universities. As an earlier EdSource report showed, so far there has not been a substantial increases in student completion rates. But as the community college system continues to adopt key reforms, its leaders hope newer students will reap the benefits of the new efforts.
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Much of the vision document’s goals will be shaped around a $150 million state initiative called Guided Pathways, included in the 2017-2018 state budget. The one-time spending program is supposed to help colleges use data systems and other software to design a course-taking roadmap for students seeking a credential or other degree. Many students are bogged down with classes they don’t need because the ones essential to their major were unavailable or full. Guided Pathways aims to signal to students the classes they require to graduate or transfer.

“So a student who needs to take math and English can take sociology in one semester, can access those classes in a sequence that allows them to finish as quickly as possible,” said Oakley. While some community colleges have such roadmaps in place, the system as a whole does not, he said.

Some of the vision document’s goals require support from other California agencies. To improve transfer rates for community college students, the UCs and CSUs have to be on board with accepting more students. Meanwhile, the state’s financial aid system could be more helpful to students, Oakley said. The report notes that while roughly half of the system’s students get their tuition waved, “few qualify for financial aid to cover their living expenses such as transportation and textbooks.”

Because 40 percent of the system’s students are 25 or older, Oakley said that his office would advocate for a new way to distribute the state’s main college grant — Cal Grants — to benefit working students who can only enroll in college part-time. “We would have to reimagine the way we distribute Cal Grants or create a different category for those students who cannot go to school full-time or who are working,” he said. That change may require new legislation or a change in how the California Student Aid Commission sets formulas for Cal Grants.

Beyond establishing performance goals for the whole community college system, the document also addresses several organizational challenges that it says holds back California’s students.

“Many faculty and CEOs report having a sense of ‘initiative fatigue,’” the document says. It refers to a string of reform initiatives in recent years when the system took on $500 million in new programs, such as the Student Success and Support Program, the Student Equity Program, and the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative, “all with their own sets of goals and performance indicators.” the vision statement says. Oakley also said he’d like to see his office spend less time on sending reports to the Legislature and more on helping individual colleges tackle the issues outlined in the report.

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