President Obama, foundation leaders and the heads of advocacy groups all agree that community colleges need to focus on more than access and drastically improve their generally low completion rates. By and large, these leaders believe that these institutions know, whether by research or common sense, just what to do – such as providing better academic advising, outreach to struggling students, financial aid to encourage full-time enrollment, smaller class sizes and so forth. So what’s the holdup?
Community college presidents across the country argue there is a great disparity between what is being asked of their institutions as far as the “completion agenda” and their ability to actually accomplish its goals – mostly because of dwindling state and local resources.
Last month, at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, six of the sector’s leading education and policy organizations signed  what they deemed “a call to action” – a commitment to improve student completion rates by 50 percent over the next decade. The pledge  appealed to the sense of responsibility that officials at these open-access institutions often feel toward their community: “With the ‘completion agenda’ as a national imperative, community colleges have an obligation to meet the challenge while holding firmly to traditional values of access, opportunity, and quality.”
Upon hearing of the pledge at the convention, Ron Wright, chancellor of Delgado Community College, in New Orleans, had the same response as many of his colleagues.
“How in the world are we going to be able to do this without any new resources in the system?” said Wright, recollecting his first impression. “How are we going to do this in the face of all the pressure we already have from the legislatures and others to raise our completion rates with the limited resources we have now?”
Delgado has had its state appropriations cut by nearly $5.5 million already this fiscal year, and officials expect more cuts to come. Wright has had to make a number of institutional decisions over the past few months that he knows run counter to best practices and common knowledge of what improves student success, all in the name of basic survival. For instance, he has allowed the average size of a class at Delgado to balloon from around 20 students to more than 30.
“We’ve prided ourselves over the last 30 to 40 years for having reasonable class sizes so that teachers can know students and students can benefit from teachers,” Wright said. “Now, we’re filling classes with as many students as we possibly can.”
Growing class sizes is just one of the difficult choices Wright has had to make in recent months. The belt-tightening has also made its impact on valuable student services.
“We know full well that we need to be ‘high-touch’ with students and have counselors and advisers for them to talk to in order to give them guidance and direction, especially because most of our students don’t have family members who’ve been to college,” Wright said. “But, despite this, we have to cut back on guidance and first-year experience programs and the like. We’ve had to let a number of people who were on contract for dedicated advising to students go; we had to let some of those contracts lapse.”
Hercules Pinkney, interim president of Montgomery College, in Maryland, is facing similar financial challenges. Like Wright, he believes in the purpose of the “completion agenda,” but he thinks its timing has made it more of a challenge.
“From the standpoint of what we should be about in this country, the timing [of the completion agenda] is right,” Pinkney said. “But, from the ability of the states and counties that support this initiative – which everybody knows is right and is what we should do – it's out of sync with reality. There may have to be a delay in terms of meeting these goals. Everything is in place except for the resources to get the job done, and we’re not asking for a lot of new resources right now.”
Though some budget reductions have been made at Montgomery, the extent of the cuts will not be known until funding from the county government – which makes up almost half of the college’s budget – is finalized in the next two weeks. If these cuts are approved, Pinkney is prepared to make a number of service reductions that he acknowledges will hurt students – again, for institutional preservation.
Among the possible cuts, fewer faculty members would be able to advise students in their concentrations. The financial aid office would close early one day a week to catch up on processing aid requests. Also, libraries and computer labs would have to noticeably reduce their service hours, despite increased usage.
This potential trimming is not something Pinkney takes lightly.
“Having to cut back on support services pains me,” Pinkney said. “If these students don’t have access to resources to help them figure out what’s going on in the classroom, you’re going to have more failures and less completion.”
James Middleton, president of Central Oregon Community College, also feels pressure to do more with less at his institution. Regional unemployment has stayed between 15 and 20 percent, the college’s enrollment has spiked by more than 80 percent in the past three years, and registration for the upcoming summer term is rising to unprecedented levels.
“Whenever a disaster strikes – whether flood, earthquake, tornado or tsunami of student need – first responders rise to the occasion,” wrote Middleton in an e-mail, using an analogy to make his point. “Damaged homes are replaced with tents, portable toilets are put in place, planting the spring garden is postponed, the breakfast dishes are left dirty. But such conditions cannot become the new norm. Community colleges have been the first responders to the personal and economic crises at hand. Community colleges have responded heroically but cannot fall into a ‘new norm.’ In a parallel metaphor, community colleges have acted like the paramedic, keeping the patient alive long enough to get to the hospital. But we must not pretend that the paramedic is the surgeon or the physical therapist who leverages long-term health.”
Since Central Oregon receives only 14 percent of its revenue from state appropriations, Middleton said, his institution has been less impacted by larger state budget reductions. Still, challenges in living up to the “completion agenda” remain.
“Not only are the numbers higher, the student needs are more acute with financial and family challenges and an even higher proportion of academically underprepared students,” Middleton wrote. “However, we cannot sustain five times the number of financial aid awardees, the vast expansion of advisees challenging our faculty advisers, the need for senior faculty to mentor part-timers in addition to their expanded teaching loads, and other short-term responses to the immediate needs.”
Hearing the Cry
The architects of the “completion agenda,” however, say they were conscious of the difficulties community colleges would face when their pledge was drafted. Economic realities aside, they argue the focus on completion is desperately needed in the sector, especially as a way to lobby the government.
“The timing is not ideal,” said J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees. “First of all, we were hoping we’d have the American Graduation Initiative  – and we’re still committed to getting that accomplished. We’re not going to get from point A to point B without a supportive funding stream that would enable students to be successful. I recognize that colleges have to cut things and that their state and local funds are decreasing. That’s why we want to create a funding stream that will get them to this goal.”
Brown compared the “completion agenda” and the pledge his organization signed to President Obama’s call  for the United States to have the highest proportion of graduates in the world by 2020.
“It’s not unlike President Obama’s goal,” Brown said. “It’s a big goal. Can we necessarily get there completely? I don’t know, but we need to have a serious discussion about what really matters and what’s the purpose of education in this country and what more we can do to ensure that. You never achieve anything if you don’t put out a goal. Whether you buy into this thing or not, we must, as a sector, do better in graduating students and ramping up the education talent we have in this country.”
George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said he sympathizes with local officials who are befuddled by the disparity of what’s being asked of them and what they’re capable of doing. Still, he said they should plan to focus on completion for the long haul.
“It’s going to be hard work,” Boggs said. “I understand the circumstances they’re going through. I understand how difficult the decisions they’re making are. They’re closing class sections and laying people off when they want to help students more, not less. But the ‘completion agenda’ is a long-term project. We’re going to be working for quite a while to improve the success rates of our students.”