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Behind the Billboards

December 14, 2011

Boosters of the completion agenda are generally supportive of community colleges, opting for encouragement rather than shame on low graduation rates. A business group in Texas has taken a more confrontational approach, however, with a campaign that goes beyond tough love.

“8% of DCCCD students graduate in 3 yrs. Is that fair to the students? TX Assn of Business,” reads a billboard that appeared this week in Dallas, referring to the Dallas County Community College District. The Texas Association of Business also took on Austin Community College in October, citing a 4 percent graduation rate on a billboard that asked: “Is that a good use of tax $?”

Ouch.

Community college leaders have fired back, arguing that the billboard advertisements are misleading because they refer only to first-time, full-time students -- about 5 percent of Austin Community College’s enrollment -- and demonstrate a “fundamental lack of understanding about the mission of community colleges and who our students are."

The association is unmoved by those responses, saying completion rates are low for the state’s community colleges “no matter how you slice it.”

Who’s behind the campaign? Not for-profit colleges, as some might suspect. The association represents a broad swath of business interests in Texas, having merged with the statewide Chamber of Commerce in the ‘90s. But only one for-profit – Argosy University – is a member. And Bill Hammond, the association’s president and CEO, said for-profits are a “small part of the solution” for producing more college graduates in Texas

In an interview, Hammond said the group’s graduation push is the work of its members. It includes a call for performance-based funding, and began organically about three years ago as businesses increasingly clamored for more qualified workers, he said. But the influence of two major national players in the completion agenda -- Complete College America and the Lumina Foundation for Education -- can be seen in the association’s message.

Complete College America, in particular, has had a Texas-sized role in inspiring the association’s campaign.

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, spoke at an October summit on higher education that the business group hosted. Also at the conference was Woody L. Hunt, a prominent Texas business leader who is also a member of Complete College America’s governing board.

Hammond said the association successfully lobbied for Texas to sign onto Complete College America’s Alliance of States, under which state leaders pledge to set completion goals, enact policies to support those goals and publicly report measures of progress. Governor Rick Perry appointed Hammond to an advisory board that oversees that effort.

The association also distributed a news release with data from Complete College America’s latest major report, which was released in October. The release cited the state’s low graduation rates and quoted Jones.

Lumina appears to have had a smaller influence on the business group. But Hammond represented the association on a state task force that landed a $150,000 grant from the foundation in 2008. The money went to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as part of an 11-state initiative on “increasing educational opportunity, attainment and affordability.”

Jones and other officials from Complete College America were on the road Tuesday, and did not respond to interview requests. Lumina did not return a call on Tuesday afternoon.

Hammond said the billboard campaign’s goal is a “better-educated workforce,” and community colleges aren’t getting the job done. About 9 percent of first-time students who enroll at two-year colleges in Texas graduate with an associate degree within four years, according to Complete College America

 “In Texas for a long time we have successfully focused on access,” Hammond said. “We’re spending a lot of money and not getting much in return.”

Hammond said he hopes both lawmakers and community college leaders tune into the group’s message. “They need to turn their focus to completion.”

True Believer on Completion?

The business group has done little to work with community colleges in the state, said Steven Johnson, associate vice president for external relations at the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

For example, Johnson said only one community college representative was invited to speak at the group’s October summit on higher education, and the official was a late addition. “We really wish we had a better partner in the Texas Association of Business,” Johnson said.

Nothing sinister appears to be behind the group’s campaign. Some observers speculate that the association’s influence has waned with the rise of the Tea Party, and that Hammond seized on an issue that was likely to catch the attention of the news media. (It did, obviously.)

Hammond, however, is convincingly sincere in describing his enthusiasm about Complete College America’s work. In fact, he comes across like a true believer on graduation rates -- just one who displays a bit less diplomacy than his peers at higher education-oriented nonprofits.

Johnson defends work by the state’s community colleges to improve completion rates. In addition to signing onto the Complete College America agenda, Texas participates in Achieving the Dream and received a grant from Completion by Design. He says community college leaders have fully bought into making “data-driven decisions” to improve student performance.

Wright L. Lassiter Jr., chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, wrote to Hammond this week to express his disappointment at the billboard campaign. In the letter, he said students’ accomplishments often don’t fit into the business group’s definition of success.

“Here’s a shocker: many of our students don’t graduate in three years – a fact that is their choice because they do not or cannot attend classes full-time,” Lassiter wrote. “They must balance work with family responsibilities and attending college. Yes, it seems they have lives that might interfere with the Texas Association of Business’s limited timeline.”

For his part, Hammond said the association does not mean to bash community colleges. The real culprit is a longstanding culture that encourages colleges to chase enrollment growth for state money, he said, a problem that would change with performance-based funding.

“I consider myself a critical friend of public higher education,” he said.

And Hammond stressed that businesses truly are hard-up for more community college graduates. In Austin alone, he said there are 5,000 vacant IT jobs that employers can’t fill.

Car commuters in Texas won’t have long to spot the group’s latest billboard. The Dallas advertisement, located off of the Central Expressway, will be taken down today, after only three days. That’s longer than its counterpart in Austin, which was only visible from I-35 for one day before being removed.

However, Hammond said more billboards may be on the way. And he promises that the group’s graduation rate campaign will continue.

 

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