The idea of tiered tuition at California community colleges draws strong opposition from students, and the new system chancellor has come out strongly against the concept, but it keeps coming back. Legislation has been introduced to formally grant community colleges the right to charge higher tuition rates for extension courses offered in the summer or winter terms and to award credit for those courses, if they have been at capacity for the previous two years, The Los Angeles Times reported. Many courses have been at capacity in recent years, delaying students from completing their programs. Supporters of differential tuition say that it can provide revenue to pay for courses students need, but critics say that these policies effectively enable wealthier students to have greater access to education and run against the ideals of community colleges.
Economists are often criticized for treating colleges as if they were factories: using models that evaluate college efficiency in creating outputs (student completions) for a given input (cost).
In fact, in many ways a college education is like the factory production process: students start at the beginning and then, after a sequence of “inputs” in the form of courses and support services, some graduate successfully at the end.
Unfortunately, economic analyses of college efficiency typically do not look at college as a process. Economic models have traditionally tried to understand college efficiency through a simple input-per-output equation. For example, they may look at a graduation rate in 2012 and compare that to the resources available in the college in 2012.
This approach might be reasonable if college only took one year to complete. It might be reasonable if the college experience was a steady dosage, with the freshman year being the same as the sophomore year. It might be reasonable if there were as many freshmen as sophomores. Needless to say, college is not one year. First-year and second-year requirements are not the same and have different costs. And at community colleges the freshman class is typically more than twice the size of the sophomore class.
The truth is, contemporary factory managers have a much better understanding of their factory's production process than economists do of how colleges operate. Factory managers understand that it matters what happens along the entire chain of production. They know that getting more output at the front end means that the whole production chain must work better. Improvements in one area won't help if they create bottlenecks later on. They also know that efficiency does not come from sacrificing quality.
The same understanding should be applied to the college experience. Improving the quality of instruction in introductory courses won't help if students can't access high-demand majors, such as nursing. Pouring resources into one early intervention won’t help if other programs lose resources and decline in quality as a result. And increasing retention rates won't improve efficiency if it leads students to drop out in their second year instead of their first. In fact, improved retention requires more upper-level courses (which tend to cost more) and makes colleges look less efficient if graduation rates remain unchanged.
In sum, looking at snapshots is not likely to help make colleges more efficient. Instead, it would be more helpful to investigate the process of college and understand what resources are available to a cohort of students as they progress through their college years. We have begun this investigation by using detailed transcript and costs data from one college and simulating different student progression rates.
As well as providing a better understanding of what resources are needed to get a student through to completion, this model enables us to evaluate different reform strategies. We find that increasing first-year math pass rates will increase completions and make the college more efficient. But an equivalent improvement in preparing students to be college-ready has a much greater effect on efficiency.
By contrast, improving persistence rates helps improve completion rates but it does not make the college that much more efficient: many students simply drop out having taken more classes. Finally, getting “lingerers” -- students who have persisted for years and accrued large numbers of credits -- to complete their awards will significantly boost efficiency, as will ensuring that more students who transfer to a four-year institutions earn an associate degree before they transfer.
Much more work needs to be done in this area. But to better understand the economics of college completion we need to more accurately model the resources that are required as students progress through college.
Clive Belfield is an associate professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Pima Community College has been placed on probation by its regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The college's accreditation woes emerged last month, after a commission site team said it had found a broad range of complex problems at Pima, including concerns about governance and changed admissions policies. The team recommended probation, which the commission approved, notifying the college in a letter earlier this week.
Officials of the Los Angeles Community College District are calling it a "rebalancing" plan, but student leaders and others aren't going along. The Los Angeles Times reported that the plan involves cutting the $1,500 monthly car allowance top administrators receive to $500, and then using the extra $1,000 a month to give raises to those administrators. The plan is based on the idea that the administrators are underpaid, compared to others in California. But student leaders and their backers say that the district shouldn't be paying top officials to drive to and from work, and that any savings should go to restoring some of the class sections that have been cut in recent years.
Budget panels in California's Legislature have rejected a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown that would have increased tuition for community college students who exceed 90 lifetime credits, The Sacramento Bee reported. The plan, which sought to increase efficiency in the system, would have required students to pay four times the standard tuition rate of $46 per credit. Brown had recommended the caps as part of his budget plan.
West Virginia is moving to merge two community colleges, while maintaining their two campuses, which are 33 miles apart, the Associated Press reported. The boards of Bridgemont Community and Technical College and Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College have approved the plan, under which the two institutions will be run by one president and one board. The goal of the merger is to cut costs.
Last week's incidents at two-year institutions in Virginia and Texas point to safety challenges at institutions with non-residential students, multiple campuses and a fraction of the counseling resources available at four-year institutions.
Hundreds of employees at Bergen Community College apparently overpaid their New Jersey and federal taxes for years, The Bergen Record reported. The overpayments were the result of incorrect calculations about life insurance policies that are covered by the W-2 forms employees receive to do their taxes. The college has issued new W-2 forms and is advising employees that they may want to file amended returns for prior years.
Federal spending on the Pell Grant Program declined slightly during the first half of the 2012-13 award year compared to the same period during the previous two years, according to new data released by the American Association of Community Colleges. Almost all of the spending decrease is for Pell recipients who attended community colleges and for-profit institutions. The number of recipients at public two-year institutions declined by 193,339, according to the association, with Pell spending on that sector dipping by $358 million. Recipients at for-profits were down 115,322 with a corresponding decrease of $131 million in spending. The program's cost also declined in the previous fiscal year.