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Community college systems are finding they're under more scrutiny than ever before, especially when it comes to whether their students complete programs and graduate.

Take, for instance, a recent report out of Virginia that criticized the state's 23 community colleges for failing to get students associate degrees and certificates. The legislative report criticized the community college system, saying that only 39 percent of the state's community college students earned a degree or credential within seven years, and also expressed concerns about a lack of consistent dual-enrollment courses and a difficult transfer process.

The study found that the Virginia colleges’ completion rates were on par with the national rate. Thirty-nine percent of community college students nationally earn a credential or degree within six years, however, in other states, the rate exceeds 50 percent, according to the report. The report also found that the colleges are struggling to meet employers’ demands. For instance, there is a demand for employees in finance-related fields, but 13 of the colleges don't offer relevant programs. Ten colleges reported being unable to provide all of the work-force programs and credentials that can lead to employment in high-demand occupations such as certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, pipe fitters and welders.

The report also outlined that the colleges don't have enough academic advisers to sufficiently help students, with 21 colleges reporting difficulties in providing academic advising because of an insufficient number of advisers and large caseloads. The report also pointed out that Virginia's community college students earned "a semester's worth of excess credits" by the time they earned a bachelor's degree. Across five types of credentials students could earn through the community colleges, 75 percent of students earned more than the typical number of credits required.

"People inside and out of the system want to see more people graduate," said Jeffrey Krause, assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications at the Virginia Community College System. "They want to see completions and see people acquire skills and credentials to succeed in the workplace."

"In many places, we are seeing state legislatures getting more involved with decisions that might normally be expected to be made by campuses or even the state systems," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, via email. Baime points to performance-based funding legislation, new tuition-free initiatives and remediation reforms as examples of policy makers weighing in on colleges' performance.

If state lawmakers are focusing their attention on completion, it could be because they see quickly approaching attainment goals on the horizon, said Lexi Anderson, a policy analyst with Education Commission for the States. While some states have created their own attainment goals, the Obama administration established 2020 as the goal for reaching 60 percent degree attainment for the country, while the Lumina Foundation established 2025 as the goal for 60 percent of working-age adults possessing a "high-quality" credential.

"The closer we get to those goals, the higher importance states and policy makers put on completing degrees and credentials," Anderson said, adding that two-year institutions may feel the pressure more intensely since they have an open-access mission and educate high numbers of "nontraditional" students.

But in addition to wanting to increase college attainment, state lawmakers have drawn a link between community colleges, work-force development and economic growth, she said, adding that legislators in states like Tennessee -- with its Drive to 55 initiative -- Indiana and Ohio have gone "all in" on pushing for reforms to increase the number of degrees as a way of increasing economic growth.

Scott Jenkins, a strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, said it isn't just attainment goals that are driving lawmakers.

"For the last 20 to 30 years, state legislatures have been underwhelmed when you look at the traditional completion metrics of enrollment, persistence and graduation at community colleges," he said. "What is new is that you have a lot of states that are investing in community colleges as a primary strategy around preparing people for the work force, and community colleges are more receptive to a small amount of dollars because they're much nimbler."

Jenkins said it's true that, if looking purely at general appropriations to community colleges, state funding to the institutions has decreased as a share of operating costs.

But instead, state lawmakers are pushing for tuition-free programs, which can drive enrollment growth, which in turn brings in more funding per student, he said.

But Krause said the focus by the Legislature on Virginia's completion, transfer and dual enrollment isn't unusual. This type of legislative review of the colleges was due to happen, and the General Assembly is "holding the colleges accountable to taxpayers," he said, adding that the last legislative review of the colleges occurred in 1991. Each year the Legislature makes a decision about which agencies will be reviewed.

In a blog post about the report, VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois said he was glad the Legislature evaluated the system.

"I think our colleges are well run, but it can be helpful to see ourselves as outsiders do and find things that we can do better," he said.

DuBois said that none of the Legislature's 21 recommendations were surprising and many of them reflected the system's own six-year strategic plan, known as Complete 2021.

"We agree with the report's conclusions that dual enrollment and college transfer can work better for students and families," he said. "But improving them requires working with our respective partners in K-12 school districts and universities."

The report also means the system will look to the Legislature to help implement some of these recommendations, by, for instance, making financial changes that allow the colleges to add more academic advisers.

"Accountability and scrutiny are the only tools in a Legislature's toolbox, and there is a heightened need and necessity for community colleges to be really good at serving the populations they have," Jenkins said. "Sometimes that comes across as being hard on a community college … from a positive side, it does reflect that everyone recognizes the absolute fundamental need of our community colleges to improve and serve students as quickly as possible."

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