Setting State Targets

As the "completion agenda" advances, systems of community colleges are agreeing on ambitious goals for increasing number of graduates. Are the plans realistic?
December 9, 2010

Spurred by President Obama’s rhetoric and the work of a few influential foundations, many states have echoed the national call for more community college graduates by setting their own completion goals in recent months. And though some say these statewide goals are evidence of a larger shift in community college mission from access to completion, others see them as a preemptive attempt to demonstrate the kind of accountability that the federal and state governments may impose. Some question whether these newly set goals are even realistic amid dwindling funding for higher education.

Last month, the Community College League of California, a group made up of the leaders of the state’s 112 two-year institutions, announced an ambitious completion goal of its own. It wants California to produce one million more community college certificate and degree holders by 2020.

This, it argues, is its share of President Obama’s larger national goal, because California serves about one-third of the country’s community college students. To reach the statewide goal, the group notes, each of the state’s 112 community colleges will need to boost its average annual completions from 1,200 to 3,500.

The organization released a set of recommendations that spelled out how such a massive increase in the number of community college graduates could be achieved in light of recent budget cuts and overcrowding issues in California. The suggestions include requiring students to "participate in integrated student support, assessment, counseling and orientation, and enroll in courses according to well-publicized and strictly enforced registration deadlines."

Criticism Remains

Many in California, however, doubt whether the organization’s lofty call for more graduates is possible without state government funding for enrollment increases and hiring more full-time faculty at the community college level.

“When we make goals, we have to take into consideration all of what’s available,” said Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association, a union affiliated with the National Education Association in California. “I don’t know that this goal is attainable. The bottom line is, how are we going to get it done? How is it going to be funded? Every year we lose more full-time faculty members, yet the remaining full-time faculty members are asked to do more. At what point can they just not take on any more? It’s a battle we fight every day.”

Reel noted that the faculty union will formally review the completion challenge put forth by the League later this week, at which point it will weigh in on its feasibility and possibly make its own recommendations for executing the plan.

Scott Lay, president of the League, has heard his share of criticisms of the goal.

“Many people are telling us we are aiming too high — whether it be in tripling the number of annual completions or eliminating the achievement gap,” Lay wrote in an e-mail. “However, the people that dropped out at mile 25 of the California International Marathon on Sunday have a lot more to be proud about than those that instead stayed on the couch to watch football.”

Plethora of Plans

California is not the only state to set ambitious community college completion goals. In Virginia, Gov. Robert M. McDonnell has called this week for the state legislature to give $58 million to higher education in the state to help meet his goal of awarding 100,000 more associate and bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

Last week, the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, which is made up of leaders from the state’s 16 two-year institutions, signed a pledge to increase the number of community college graduates annually from about 11,200 this past academic year to more than 18,600 in the 2024-25 academic year. That works out to nearly a 4.5 percent increase each year.

Maryland’s goal was unveiled as part of its membership in Complete College America, a group formed last spring as an alliance of 24 states. Some states, like Colorado, have formal plans and initiatives sponsored by their state governments. Most, however, are like Maryland in that their completion efforts are considered voluntary because they are headed by non-government groups. The participating states have agreed to “set completion goals"; “develop action plans and move key policy levers”; and “collect and report common measures of progress.”

“The impetus here is for our colleges to take the president’s challenge seriously,” said Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland association. “We’re seeing similar goals pop up all over the country. Frankly, I give the president credit for that. It’s not like no one ever thought of these issues before. But, this really has focused our efforts on completion.”

The association hosted a meeting last week at which representatives from the state’s 16 institutions shared specific plans for how they planned on boosting their completion rates. Some of the ideas included a mathematics redesign effort “to reduce lecture time, increase student engagement, and decrease costs” and a retention program that encourages “early intervention and intrusive advising designed to identify and assist students who are academically and/or behaviorally at risk.”

There are some doubters in Maryland when it comes to the effectiveness of setting a solid completion goal. Whitlow noted that people have asked him if the state’s community colleges are setting themselves up for failure or embarrassment if they do not reach their goal.

“I don’t see this as just being about hitting a number,” Whitlow said. “I see this as being about inspiring institutional transformation. I want to see every community college in Maryland, two or three years from now, be able to answer what it is doing that they weren’t doing before that has improved completion. Every college ought to have a substantive answer to that question regardless of whether or not they meet their own individual goal.”

In 2000, before many other states jumped on the bandwagon, Texas introduced Closing the Gaps, an ambitious initiative that aims to "increase the overall number of students completing bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees and certificates to 171,000 by 2010; and to 210,000 by 2015." Specifically, for community colleges, the goal is to "increase the number of students completing associate’s degrees to 43,400 by 2010; and to 55,500 by 2015."

As of last year, Texas was on track to meet the 2010 benchmark, but state leaders agree that they have a lot of work to do to ensure they will meet their 2015 goal. For example, last month, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board suggested that the state legislature adopt an outcomes-based funding formula for its community colleges and public universities next year to help meet the goal. So far, though, Texas has improved its college completion levels by mandating that all high school students take the "Recommended High School Program" of courses to quality for college admission, testing students for remedial gaps in their education while they are still in high school, and better linking student information systems between secondary and postsecondary institutions, among other ideas.

Anticipating Accountability

Though he said it was not the primary motivator for Maryland’s creation of a completion goal, Whitlow did acknowledge that the possibility of increased federal accountability of the community college sector will factor in to how the state judges itself and measures its success on the way to its goal.

“The proverbial handwriting is on the wall that we’re going to see increased accountability on the federal level,” Whitlow said. “I think it behooves us all in higher education, both in the two- and four-year sector, to get out ahead of that.… We’re going to be looking at our completion on a regular basis now. This isn’t just a one-time thing until the deadline arrives.”

In California, Lay argued that there are a number of factors that have influenced state community college officials like him to identify their own completion goals.

“As I regularly say, people drink the Kool-Aid for one of three reasons — political, economic and moral,” Lay wrote. “Some got on the bandwagon to get ahead of the political tide of accountability, whether it be federal, state or local. Others are motivated by the economic calamity of having the ‘greatest education generation’ retiring and their children following as a lesser education population. Finally, some are primarily motivated because of growing income inequality, and the impact that the achievement gap for black, Latino and other socioeconomic minorities will have as the minorities become majorities.”

Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and interim chair of Iowa State University’s Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, argued that some other contemporary moves may have prompted states to look at their own “completion agendas.” No matter the reason, she holds that these individualized goals are good for community colleges.

“First, with the decline in the economy, many ‘middle class’ students who would have gone to state schools are opting for the community college that is less expensive,” Hagedorn wrote in an e-mail. “This opens these institutions to greater scrutiny. Second, it has been a long-kept secret that completions (and other measures of success) are low in community colleges. But the truth is that most colleges really did not know or at least did not articulate these numbers.... The movements about have opened up these conversations and a new era of accountability seems to be upon us forcing community colleges to analyze their data.”

Completion Catches On

A more in-depth look at how the states perceive the completion agenda was provided last month with the release of an annual survey of state directors of community colleges. The 2010 survey was conducted by Steve Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, and Janice Friedel, educational leadership professor at California State University at Northridge. When asked if "Increased attention to state-level student success/degree completion is being paid in my state," 46 of the 50 respondents either “agreed” or “strongly agreed.” Two were neutral. Respondents from South Dakota and Maine “disagreed” and “strongly disagreed” respectively.

Thirty-six of the states, or 72 percent of them, agreed that “community college capacity needs expansion to achieve President Obama’s goal of dramatically increasing the number of adult Americans attending college." Still, 30 of the states, or 60 percent, agreed that “in light of state funding cuts, achieving increases in graduation rates will be difficult.”

Despite the difficulty of doing more with less, Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, finds a lot to like in the many state-centric completion goals.

“It’s good to set ambitious goals,” Bailey said. “It’s probably more important to err on the ambitious side rather than the non-ambitious side. It sends the message, ‘This is important. Let’s get moving.’ ”


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