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Foundations and reformers who want to increase the number of Americans with a college degree or certificate are turning to the state with the largest population of college-going adults -- California.

The state has become a testing ground for groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation to encourage the latest education innovations in an effort to improve college completion.

But it wasn’t long ago that groups advocating for reforms were viewed as antithetical to a liberal education and kept a low profile in the state.

The California Community College and California State University systems both have set high-achieving goals to raise completion rates in the next few years, and they’re welcoming reforms like guided pathways, accelerated remediation and incentives to get students through faster.

The urgency to increase completion is driven, in part, by the fact that the state is facing a work force skills gap. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state will be about 1.1 million college graduates short of meeting the demand for workers with a bachelor’s degree by 2030, if current trends continue. Furthermore, in order for the state to be among the top 10 in the country for educational attainment rates, it needs to produce 2.4 million technical certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees by 2025. Lumina estimates that the number is closer to 3.7 million credentials by 2025 in order for the state to compete internationally.

“There is no longer any major pushback around the concept that our system needs to improve outcomes, specifically completion outcomes for students,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community College system. “Certainly there are still those who feel higher education is going in the wrong direction, but that’s a philosophical argument rather than a practical one. In terms of our internal stakeholders, the governor’s office, the Legislature … everyone agrees California community colleges need to improve outcomes and do it with some urgency.”

Still, skepticism exists, particularly around accelerating students’ progress through remediation, he said.

“But we’re finding there is much more willingness to try these interventions and rely on data to determine if they’re working,” Oakley said.

Faculty members said they are aware of the looming shortage of skilled workers in the state, especially as baby boomers retire. However, they also want to make clear that pushing students to graduation as quickly as possible won’t be an easy fix.

“Our system produces more than 50 percent of the teachers [in the state],” said Kim Geron, a political science professor at Cal State East Bay and former California Faculty Association vice president. “We can try different models to speed up the process, but you can’t speed up what it takes to make a good teacher.”

This month, the state’s Board of Governors accepted a new strategic plan for the community college system that laid out just what the new completion goals would be in order to help close those potential work force gaps.

They included:

  • Increase by at least 20 percent a year the number of students who earn an associate degree, credential or certificate or achieve a specific skill set.
  • Increase the number of transfer students to the University of California and Cal State systems by 35 percent each year.
  • Decrease the number of excess credits students take by about 25 credits. On average, students completed 87 credits to earn an associate degree, when typically only 60 are required.
  • Cut the achievement gap by 40 percent within five years and eliminate it within 10 years.
  • Increase the number of students in career education programs who find employment in their field by 15 percent.

“We felt we needed to own all of that and make it clear this is where our colleges needed to be and make it clear to policy makers and the Legislature that this is also their responsibility, to ensure that we work together to get our colleges and students to [graduation],” Oakley said, adding that the completion goals put the 114 colleges where they need to be over the next five to 10 years.

For its part, the Cal State system is working on the new Graduation Initiative 2025, which sets goals of increasing graduation rates and cutting achievement gaps for students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. Introduced this fall, the plan calls for increasing the freshman four-year graduation rate from 19 percent, where it stood in 2015, to 40 percent. It would also raise the six-year rate from 57 percent in 2015 to 70 percent for freshmen, raise the two-year goal for transfer students from 31 percent in 2015 to 45 percent, and raise the four-year goal for transfer students from 73 percent in 2015 to 85 percent.

Image: Graduation Initiative 2025 Goals. Four-year goal for freshmen: 40 percent (2015 rate was 19 percent). Six-year goal for freshmen: 70 percent (2015 rate was 57 percent). Two-year goal for transfers: 45 percent (2015 rate was 31 percent). Four-year goal for transfers: 85 percent (2015 rate was 73 percent).

“For many years the state had concerns with partnering with Gates, Lumina or the other big foundations because the concern was their aspirations weren’t aligned with ours,” Oakley said. “Then Gates and many foundations pulled out, but there’s been re-engagement and we’re working closely with partners like Gates and having active conversations with Lumina and Kresge.”

Some of that pushback came from people who believe students should be able to explore their options in college and have an opportunity to figure out what interests them, said Travis Reindl, senior communications officer for the Gates Foundation.

“You have to steer away from the extreme,” he said. “You don’t want to have something highly dictated so students can’t explore, but we also tend to be at the other extreme where you don’t want students to have no guidance and take things out of order and take too much financial aid.”

And that’s where some of the previous critics have found middle ground with the reformers.

Reforming to Completion

The community college system is using guided pathways as the frame to organize many of the initiatives colleges are using in order to reach those completion goals.

Oakley said the pathways framework has been well received in the colleges because it allows each institution to look at its data individually and not have the system office micromanaging the campuses.

“People are frustrated that even over the last five years, with a tremendous amount of work and advancement, the colleges haven’t seen the improvement everyone wants to see,” he said. “That’s why you see openness to the framework and an acknowledgment our systems need to improve.”

The reforms are also easier to implement in the state because of the increased investment policy makers have made, said Max Espinoza, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. The state invested a one-time contribution of $150 million in the pathways projects at the community colleges for a five-year period, adding $20 million more from innovation grants.

But the reforms aren’t coming from the foundations, he said.

“It’s coming from within. These efforts, from what we see, they’re really coming from California and the colleges themselves and leaders who are really trying to help their students,” Espinoza said.

For a foundation as large as Gates, working with California was a no-brainer if they were going to address national attainment issues.

“It’s awfully hard to get to Lumina’s 2025 goal without moving the needle significantly in places like California,” said Scott Jenkins, strategy director for Lumina, who added that the foundation’s national goal is 60 percent for degree or credential attainment. “It’s too big. Too diverse. It has too many students of color who are not being successful.”

And coming out of the recession, the feeling within the colleges changed. Having more people with some education after high school was an economic development issue and not just something to be addressed by educators or civil rights activists, he said.

Gates, in particular, is interested in remedial education that gets students to and through a credit-bearing class, streamlining transfer from community colleges to public university systems and providing financial incentives to help the most vulnerable students stay and continue through college.

For example, the foundation is one of the major funders behind the California Guided Pathway Project. Gates, Lumina, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation also are major supporters of the community colleges’ new strategic plan.

Faculty may initially have been nervous about the completion agenda, but Jenkins said it’s hard to deny the strong evidence from guided pathways and reforms to remediation like corequisite courses that show evidence of being successful with students and promoting completion and persistence.

And the research behind a number of these reforms has been ongoing for at least two decades. “The time for researching these things is, at least for some, over,” Jenkins said. “The time to implement is now, and we really can’t wait.”

Getting Faculty on Board

A few years ago the state’s Legislature passed the Student Success Act, which pushed California’s take on the completion agenda.

“There were a lot of concerns from faculty and some colleges because of the focus on completion, and, in reality, in our system, you’re looking at a lot of student populations, and getting them to a transfer degree or certificate isn’t necessarily the definition of success,” said Austin Webster, director of external affairs at the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

For many students, taking one or two courses to gain skills or complete a career and technical education certificate is great for them, said Webster, but that can count against colleges and faculty members when completion and attainment goals are discussed.

Some also had concerns about the new pathways program. For example, faculty and union groups weren’t clear on just what the new initiative would look like, Webster said, adding that many faculty members already feel they’ve had these initiatives on their campuses.

Despite some of these concerns, many have welcomed the foundations’ financial support.

“You have faculty who are very excited and grateful and are getting involved in these programs,” Webster said. “You can get these situations where the funding from these foundations is the lifeblood for a CTE program or they’re keeping programs alive.”

But there are concerns about who at the foundations is driving these initiatives or whether the ideas behind them are coming from educators on the ground. Some faculty members have been concerned that the foundations were more like “vulture philanthropists,” who pushed for reforms that could financially benefit them, said Jonathan McLeod, a history professor at San Diego Mesa College and a California Federation of Teachers representative.

“Instead of going to faculty and saying, ‘Here are the problems,’ and asking how we can solve these problems, they went straight to the top,” he said. “They went to education administrators at the state level. They went to the U.S. Department of Education and state legislators and governors and said, ‘Education is in trouble and this is what we’re going to do to change education.’”

The completion push in the Cal State system is being driven by legislators and the governor’s office, who probably hear the message at national gatherings and from foundations, said Geron, the CSU East Bay professor, adding that some faculty members have been upset that they were not included in developing proposed reforms.

While some faculty rallied around these reforms, most were initially skeptical, McLeod said.

One commonly heard concern is that the different agendas sometimes conflict with one another. McLeod as an example points to the equity and completion pushes.

The completion agenda is about getting students through as quickly as possible and into the work force while minimizing barriers. One way to do that is to push for more online courses. And the students who are least likely to succeed in online courses are underrepresented minorities, he said.

“But that is what happens with self-proclaimed reformers -- they go to the top and meet with state chancellors of institutions and maybe it gradually filters down … and gets to faculty last,” he said. “Sometimes these reforms are formed not by the people in the trenches.”

Even so, some faculty members are seeing what’s happening nationally, as other states like Indiana and Tennessee embrace these reforms and see positive results.

“One of the challenges we’ve had in California is that a lot of the money for reforms has been one-time money and we’re able to do innovative things with one-time money to advance completion agenda, but at a certain point you’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit,” said Christine Miller, a communications professor at Sacramento State and chairwoman of the CSU Academic Senate.

The idea that faculty are resistant to change and reforms is a cliché, Miller said. They’re not jumping on the bandwagon for certain initiatives, but if the research backs up their goals, she said, faculty will support making changes in the classroom.

“We have to respect our students’ realities,” Geron said. “We think graduating sooner is a laudable goal, but it has to combine all the elements that go into students having a high-quality education.”

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