Enough Is Enough

California community colleges ask whether anyone should need five attempts to pass a course.
December 17, 2010

In hopes of saving money and improving success rates, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office wants to limit the number of times students can retake a course.

Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman, told Inside Higher Ed in an interview Thursday that her office was currently researching the feasibility of making such a change to state regulations. She noted that Chancellor Jack Scott hopes to present a proposal to the Board of Governors early next year that would bar state reimbursement to community colleges for students who retake a course more than four times. She added that if community colleges wanted to allow students the opportunity to retake a course above this threshold, then they would have to find a way to pay for it without taxpayers’ money.

“We’re looking at every corner of the system to come up with efficiencies,” said Carbaugh, noting that the idea for a policy change came to Scott from the letter of a disgruntled student who complained that he was unable to enroll in a course because of course re-takers. “We need to prioritize those students who go on to transfer or earn degrees.”

Last academic year, more than 33,000 unduplicated California community college students had retaken a single credit-bearing course more than five times in their academic careers. The state’s 112 two-year institutions serve more than 2.5 million annually. The demographics of those who retook a course more than five times closely mirror the demographics of the enrollment of the community colleges statewide, Carbaugh said. The most-repeated courses were in physical education, but gateway courses in English and mathematics were not far behind.

Not only does the chancellor’s office believe this policy change would improve graduation rates around the state, it also believes there would be a financial benefit. Carbaugh said current staff research suggests that to cap the number of times a student may repeat a course at four times would save the state about $1.5 million each year and free up roughly 740 student seats.

Carbaugh acknowledged that the proposed change would pivot the state’s community colleges slightly away from their traditionally open-access mission. Still, she argued that the restriction was all about fiscal accountability and improving student success, especially in these tough economic times for California.

“As much as we’re here to provide access, we’re also here to serve those who desire to transfer or earn a degree,” Carbaugh said.

Not everyone in the state, however, is eager for the possibility of mandated course repeat restrictions.

Mia McClellan, dean of student services at Southwestern College, in Chula Vista, noted that her institution has already made a decision on its own to limit course retakes, allowing only two attempts at passing a course.

“I feel horrible about doing this,” McClellan said. “It does not match the mission of a community college, but I understand it financially. Being the economy that it is, you’d like to be able to offer more to more people, but we just can’t because we're so dependent on the state for funding.”

Any change to the state regulations regarding funding for course re-takers would have to be approved by the Board of Governors. Carbaugh noted, however, that Scott has made his position well known to community colleges around the state, and that some, such as Southwestern, have already altered their own policies.

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