Taking Success for Granted
Kevin Drumm discovered something unexpected when he became president of Broome Community College, in Binghamton, N.Y., earlier this year.
Unlike many community colleges around the country, Broome appeared to be off to a good start in helping to produce the kind of student success outcomes that have recently become a national priority — thanks to the prodding of prominent foundations and government officials, and culminating in the six-organization pledge made at this year’s conference of the American Association of Community Colleges to boost the number of graduates in the nation by 50 percent over the next decade.
Broome’s latest three-year federal graduation rate is nearly 28 percent — above the national average of around 23 percent. Its National Community College Benchmark Project data ranked it 15th in the nation (of the 210 institutions that submitted data) in fall-to-fall retention, with 60 percent of its students returning for a second academic year. Its semester-to-semester retention is even higher, at 79 percent. And of all those from the State University of New York’s 30 community colleges, Broome’s graduates are the most likely to earn a baccalaureate degree with 87 percent of its transfers eventually doing so.
Amid New York’s budget crisis, during which Broome was dealt a 15 percent reduction in state aid, Drumm is now wondering how his college can continue to graduate more students. He argues that the state’s funding formula, which allocates money based on student enrollment rather than student outcomes, is pitting the odds against his institution.
“Given that we graduate 25 percent more students in three years than the typical community college our size, that amounts to 300 more graduates for us than most other colleges with [6-to-7,000 students],” Drumm says. “Three hundred students for us — who for our competition remain in the income pipeline to attend — means we start the next fiscal year with $1 million less potential enrollment revenue in the pipeline than similar sized colleges. Therefore our budget is being inadvertently punished for successful outputs because we are funded by an input model.”
And while Drumm is among those pushing for some level of performance-based funding in New York, and also differential tuition for certain high-tech community college programs, like those in allied health — ideas that have currency among some state officials but have not resulted in any concrete proposals and were effectively killed this year — he says his college needs additional financial resources now in order to, at the very least, maintain its promising performance.
The only problem, Drumm argues, is that nobody seems to be listening to his calls for help, when his college seems to among the relative leaders in helping to meet national “completion agenda” goals. He believes his institution would have been in line for grant funding from the American Graduation Initiative, if the AGI had been included in the recent federal budget reconciliation bill. And extra state funding is out of the question. That just leaves the major foundations, but Broome currently receives no money from big players like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Lumina Foundation for Education.
“I want to maintain the outcome levels we have, but I need some help,” Drumm says. “The big foundations are spending money at lots of big schools with poor numbers when what we’ve been doing here for quite some time has been working and we’d like to figure out why. Someday colleges will be touted for the level of success that we already have, and it’s going to be interesting to see where [Broome] is when that happens and whether we’ll get any level of recognition. It’s nice to talk about graduating more students and wanting to do so, but it’s not a big deal that someone’s already doing it. Does anybody care about the 20 percent or so of community colleges that are above average and out there doing well?”
Julie Peacock, interim vice president for academic affairs and a 30-year veteran at Broome, says the environment for grant funding is more competitive than ever. Of the six grants the college has applied for in the past few months, it has only received one. Though Peacock says it is hard for the college to “fail itself” and lose out on grants because of the outcomes it has already achieved, she does admit it is harder to go up against much larger institutions in competitive grant writing.
“Some of these grants tend to go to the larger community colleges and not necessarily the most successful ones,” Peacock says. “We read about a lot of the [larger community colleges] that get huge grants, but most of what they do isn’t applicable to many other community colleges. If we were given money to support our efforts, we could help other community colleges our size. The larger institutions can put more money into grant writing, and while we’re good at it, we don’t have the resources they do.”
Some in the philanthropic sector, however, argue that good ideas in education come from institutions of all shapes and sizes.
“We’re looking to find good ideas anywhere,” says Mark Milliron, deputy director of postsecondary improvement at the Gates Foundation, noting that he does not agree that his organization, at least, is overlooking community colleges that have already achieved some success, or favoring larger institutions. “We’re looking for colleges that are beating the odds. From rural colleges to suburban colleges, we’re looking for anybody that might have a good idea. We are not well served by not being open to the voices of all leading colleges.”
Milliron points to Gates and Lumina’s recently launched Developmental Education Initiative, a 15-college project to scale changes to remedial coursework in English and mathematics, as an example of an effort to fund already successful institutions, both large and small, and further develop their completion programs.
George Boggs, president of AACC, notes that if there is any bias in how grant funding is distributed, it favors those community colleges that serve large numbers of traditionally “at-risk students” — typically minority, first-generation or financially needy students. Though he does not feel that institutions, like Broome, that are performing above average are being ignored, he is not sure how long they can keep up the good work with whatever attention they are receiving.
“All colleges are under-resourced, including [Broome],” Boggs says. “I think [Drumm’s] argument is a good one. He says he may not be able to sustain the high level of success he already has, and that’s something I worry about all over the country.”