Keeping Students, Finding Money

Survey tracks concerns of presidents of community colleges.
April 24, 2006

Community college presidents have plenty to worry about. That’s clear from a survey of presidents, released this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, in Long Beach, Calif.

Asked to name top issues facing their institutions, 87 percent included retention on the list, followed by a lack of adequate state or local funding (86 percent), poorly prepared students (84 percent), rising personnel costs (81 percent), rising technology costs (79 percent) and demands for accountability (72 percent). When asked to pick a single issue as the most significant, they overwhelmingly cited concerns about state and local funding.

Several of the concerns are interrelated. For instance, the presidents appear to see both academic and financial factors as pressure points on retention. Many reported that they have and are expanding tutoring programs as well as financial aid in an effort to keep students enrolled and progressing toward a degree, job training, transfer or other educational goals.

Most presidents also expect retention issues to be around for some time and/or to become more important.

To the extent that finances are keeping students from enrolling, many community college presidents appear worried that their institutions’ historic commitment to low tuition rates may be in danger. A majority of presidents believe that they will be able to maintain “current affordability” levels over the next two to three years. But 15 percent of presidents said that was “very unlikely” and 24 percent said that was “somewhat unlikely.”

Many lawmakers these days want to link new funds (or even existing funds) to new accountability measures. And while the focus of its work has not been community colleges, a special panel on higher education appointed by the U.S. education secretary has been calling for more rigorous accountability. Enthusiasm for more accountability doesn’t appear high among the presidents.

Asked about “performance based funding,” in which states would link support to goals such as transfer rates, or graduation rates, only 10 percent of the presidents said this was “very reasonable.” Forty-eight percent said that it was “somewhat reasonable,” 37 percent said it was not very reasonable and 6 percent said that it was not reasonable at all.

Part of the skepticism appears due to a sense that community colleges already get short shrift when it comes to government funds, but plenty of oversight when it comes to regulation. Forty-five percent of presidents believe that their institutions are at a disadvantage in terms of regulatory requirements, compared to other sectors of higher education. Twenty-three percent think the sectors are treated in the same way.

The survey was based on responses from 251 presidents and had a margin of error of 6 percent. AACC and Sallie Mae sponsored the poll.

In a panel discussion about the survey, presidents brainstormed about what to do to solve some of the problems that are on their mind. A general theme was that they need to do a better job of telling the public (and lawmakers) what they do. Ding-Jo H. Currie, president of Coastline Community College, in California, said that "we have been so busy doing our jobs that we haven't been telling anyone" what they do.

Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, said that community college leaders also need to talk about their institutions in different ways. Too many presidents, he said, tell the public about enrollment statistics and budgets, subjects that bore the public. People are much more likely to pay attention, Templin said, if presidents can link their institutions to the general level of prosperity in a region.


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