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California Community Colleges system leaders say they will double down on improving graduation rates in response to data that show only a small percentage of enrolled students are completing their studies within four years.

According to a presentation to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors last week, just 14 percent of Latinx students and 9 percent of Black and Native American students who started college in 2015–16 completed their studies within four years. Asian students had the highest four-year completion rate at 21 percent, and white students had a completion rate of 17 percent.

These completion rates show modest improvements compared to the previous year: 13 percent of Latinx students, 7 percent of Black students, 9 percent of Native American students, 19 percent of Asian students and 15 percent of white students who started college in 2014–15 earned a degree or certificate within four years.

“The vast majority of students who start at our institutions don’t successfully make it through to completion,” said John Hetts, a visiting executive in research and data at the California Community Colleges, who presented the data, which were primarily focused on the system’s enrollment count. “If we are really going to think differently and weather this change, we have to reimagine our approach to how we educate the students that we have.”

Hetts highlighted the completion rates in his presentation to underscore the perennial retention problems faced by the system alongside pandemic enrollment drops.

While the low completion rates aren’t news to system leaders, members of the board reacted with alarm and dismay.

Tom Epstein, a member of the Board of Governors, said he was “shocked and saddened” by the figures, according to EdSource, which originally reported on the presentation to the board. “I just hope we keep a sharp focus on this and are relentless in both reaching out to students who have left us, but also in surrounding the students that we do have with support so they can complete what they came for as quickly as possible.”

Iulia Tarasova, a student member of the Board of Governors and a recent graduate of Sierra College, said focusing on enrollment without instituting more measures to ensure students are “staying enrolled” will lead to a “never-ending cycle” of students leaving.

“The structural issue is that students are struggling to continue their education, and as a student myself, I can personally attest to that,” she said at the meeting.

Daisy Gonzales, acting chancellor of the system, said she’s “optimistic” college administrators will improve completion rates, but “where we are today and where we need to be are very far apart.”

She said college leaders have long voiced concerns about completion gaps, which is why the system introduced its Vision for Success, a systemwide set of goals to “increase the completion of degrees, credentials, certificates and job-specific skill sets” by 20 percent between 2017 and 2022, among other objectives. The 20 percent goal was reached in 2020.

She noted that the numbers shared at the meeting reflect equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic and serve as “a wake-up call in the middle of a crisis to remind people that we were already in a crisis,” she said.

Completion rates at the California Community Colleges system are lower than the national average and below the rates of many community college systems in other states, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Nationwide, the average six-year completion rate among students who started at a community college in 2014 was about 40 percent, according to the latest National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Almost 36 percent of students at California Community Colleges completed their studies within six years, and roughly 30 percent of students were still working toward a degree at any institution six years after they started college, a larger percentage than that of community colleges in any other state at the time.

“The system needs to turn around,” Jenkins said. “California is behind the country in helping students develop a clear plan to get degrees that enable them to get into the labor market and directly get a good job or a job in a field that they’re interested in, or transfer in a field that they’re interested in.”

The news of continued low completion rates comes after enrollments plunged across the state system during the pandemic, much as they did at community colleges across the country. According to the enrollment estimate update presented at the board meeting, student head count declined from 2,152,643 students to 1,833,843 students in 2020–21 compared to the previous year, representing a 14.8 percent enrollment decline. The most significant declines were among students of color, male students and older adult learners, according to the report.

The system has struggled throughout the pandemic to gauge exactly how many students it has lost, because of challenges with data collection and classification of students taking independent study and asynchronous online courses.

Whatever the exact number, “our colleges are working really hard to keep the students they have and to re-engage with the students that were forced to stop out during this pandemic and whose lives were profoundly disrupted,” said Paul Feist, the system’s vice chancellor of communications and marketing.

Jack Beresford, director of communications and public relations at the San Diego Community College District, noted that enrollment and completion rates are interconnected.

“Fewer students certainly translates into fewer graduates who will go into the economy and fill those jobs,” he said.

The completion rate for associate degrees awarded by the district increased 13 percent in May 2021 compared to the previous year. But he isn’t sure that upward trajectory will continue given pandemic enrollment declines, especially among minority students, who disproportionately suffered financial losses during the public health crisis.

An increase was “encouraging” more than a year after the pandemic was declared, but “many of those students were already on track,” he said. “I think this May will really be when we see a significant impact by the pandemic and drops in enrollment on graduation numbers and completion rates.”

College and district leaders across the California Community Colleges say they are working to re-enroll students and support them through graduation.

For example, Mesa College, one of the colleges in the San Diego Community College District, is currently contacting students who stopped out to encourage them to re-enroll. The district also used federal COVID-19 relief funds to clear outstanding debts owed by students, like other community colleges within the system and across the country. The balances of more than 11,000 students enrolled in spring and summer 2021 in the San Diego district were paid off, removing holds placed on accounts and enabling students to re-enroll.

“Some of them may have owed as little as $50, $75, and we want to make sure that’s not a barrier to them continuing their studies,” Beresford said.

San José City College is investing in guided pathways that shepherd students through college to a four-year university or well-paying jobs. The Hispanic-serving institution received a $2.9 million federal grant over five years to establish three new pathways in STEM, education and public health to help Latinx students transfer more easily to four-year universities.

Rowena Tomaneng, president of San José City College, also noted that the college’s leaders are making sure the college’s brochures and promotional materials are inclusive, feature diverse students and are available in other languages, such as Spanish and Vietnamese, to serve a student body that is about 40 percent Latinx and 30 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander.

The college is also offering a tuition-free semester in spring 2022 to California residents enrolled in a minimum of six credits to boost enrollment and offer some financial relief to part-time students and working adult learners during the pandemic.

“Across the system, we’ve all been doing well in terms of continuing our ongoing outreach efforts for enrollment to increase access for our institutions, but we need to redirect a lot of our resources to retention,” Tomaneng said.

Meanwhile, system leaders are focused on several key areas to improve students’ academic outcomes and minimize equity gaps. Gonzales noted that the system is “late to the game” on implementing guided pathways and needs more time and resources to build them out, she said.

System leaders are implementing a California law requiring California Community Colleges to place as many students as possible into credit-bearing courses to reduce the time and added costs of noncredit remedial courses and to increase graduation rates.

“We need to reduce the number of units that our students are earning that do not serve them, that do not get them to the finish line,” said Gonzales.

She pointed out that increasing California Community College students’ completion rates will require help from policy makers to ensure colleges and students have the financial resources they need.

“The challenge is not putting the blame on our students. It’s taking a look inside to see what needs to transform at the institutional level to better support all of our students.”

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