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The largest higher education system in the United States -- comprising the 109 community colleges in California -- this week finalized plans to raise graduation standards for an associate degree.

Starting in fall 2009, students seeking an associate degree will have to go a course level higher than they currently do in both mathematics and composition. The mathematics requirement currently is to pass elementary algebra, equivalent to what is taught in many high schools in the ninth grade. Under the new requirement, students will have to either pass or place out of intermediate algebra as well. In composition, students currently must pass a course that is one level below freshman composition. Under the new standards, associate degree graduates would need to pass a freshman comp course.

The push for the increased standards came from the faculty. The Academic Senate of the system has been working on the issue for several years, lobbying the statewide board to approve the tougher requirements, which happened on Monday.

Ian Walton, the Senate's president and a mathematics instructor at Mission College, said that professors view the issue as one of setting standards that graduates need. "Students need more analytic capacity in math and English" than the current minimums assured, he said.

Walton also said that the current standards sent the wrong message to students in high schools (where high school level work was being required for an associate degree) and universities (which require higher level courses than the current standards for transfer admission). "Our requirements seemed completely out of line," he said.

It took a long time to gain support for the measure, Walton said, because of concerns that some students would be denied associate degrees. But among the tools available to professors pushing for higher requirements was publicity, he said.

"When I was lobbying local trustees, many of them said to me, 'as soon as you start examining this issue in public, you can't possibly make a case for our existing level of requirement,' " Walton said.

Under California law, the statewide board sets a floor for requirements and individual districts may exceed the floor and impose tougher standards. Under current standards, 41 colleges have tougher English requirements and 22 have tougher mathematics requirements. (System enrollment is 2.7 million people, and in the most recent year for which data are available, more than 73,000 associate degrees were awarded.)

College districts viewed the graduation requirements as an academic matter and deferred to the faculty judgment, according to Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, which represents campus presidents and trustees. At the same time, he said, many are concerned about whether the state will provide help for students who can't meet the new standards. "If you raise the standards and you don't offer more services to help students, you are going to have fewer students reaching the finish line," he said.

Similar concerns have led some to question the change in requirement. Teresa Aldredge is an academic counselor at Cosumnes River College, an institution where 57 percent of students are from underrepresented minority groups, many of them from low-income families. She noted that over the last nine years, more than 2,000 students at the college were placed in arithmetic as their first math course, and that of those, only 125 made it through elementary algebra. She predicted that half of those would not make it through intermediate algebra, denying an associate degree to people who started at low educational levels and pushed their way up.

She said that "without a doubt," the policy would mean fewer minority students receiving associate degrees. And she said that it was wrong for the state to move ahead in this direction without providing more money for tutoring and advising to help students meet the new requirements.

Aldredge rejected the idea that an associate degree today has less meaning because the current requirements aren't for college-level work. "I've never had a student who said 'I don't want this degree because it's just like a high school degree or doesn't have high academic value.' Never. And when you go to graduation, those people are very, very proud of their degrees."

Walton said that faculty members who pushed for the higher standards did hear such criticisms, and he said they came in two categories: Those who said that for vocationally oriented associate degrees, the higher standards weren't needed, and those who said that the higher standards would exclude certain groups of students.

To those making the vocational argument, he said that from a career perspective, the current standards are far too low. "They track people into dead end jobs," he said.

As to the argument based on demographics, he said, "we do have groups of students with a history of lower success rates in math and English courses, and no one wants to put up barriers. But when you see groups with lower success rates, you shouldn't assume that those students don't need higher standards."


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