Thursday, May 7, 2009

America Must Put Community Colleges First

Sara's op-ed ("America Must Put Community Colleges First" ) is published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she argues that community colleges -- given the much larger number of students they serve as compared with four-year institutions -- need a renewed government commitment to their support and leadership.
Faced with high tuition, a weak economy, and substantial competition for admission to four-year colleges, today's students are more likely than ever to attend one of the nation's 1,045 community colleges. According to Department of Education statistics, enrollment at community colleges grew by 741 percent from 1963 to 2006, compared with 197 percent at public four-year institutions and 170 percent at private four-year colleges. It increased from about two million in 2000 to 6.2 million in the first half of this decade alone. Yet, based on data from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, community colleges receive less than one-third the level of federal support per full-time-equivalent student ($790) that public four-year colleges do ($2,600), and have correspondingly poorer outcomes.
The op-ed offers four recommendations included in a report [policy brief] authored for the Brookings Institution by Sara, Doug Harris at UW-Madison, Chris Mazzeo at the Consortium for Chicago School Research, and Greg Kienzl at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The four recommendations are:
1. Development of national goals and a performance-measurement system. The overarching goal of national higher-education policy should be to effectively educate students at the postsecondary level. While colleges should focus on the needs of their students, it is important that they also have clearly defined goals along those lines, with incentives to match. Success in a new system should be measured by progress. Right now appropriations to community colleges are primarily based on enrollment, without regard to whether their students earn degrees or get good jobs. That gears incentives toward inputs and process, rather than outcomes.

The federal government should invest resources specifically to promote greater success for students. Colleges that receive more money should be required to track and report student results, consistent with the many community-college missions, such as whether they completed a minimum number of credits, transferred, or earned a degree. Over time, a majority of federal dollars would be awarded based not on enrollment but on colleges' performance on such crucial measures.

2. Expanded federal support. To bring community colleges to the table and convey its strong support for their work, the federal government should double its current level of direct support, from $2-billion to $4-billion. Resource needs are significant and pressing. Since 1974, the net number of new community colleges has been just 149, a growth rate of only 17 percent. The result: Many campuses today are bursting at the seams, and increasing numbers of students must be turned away. In the short-term, federal spending would support infrastructure upgrades that truly stimulate the economy. Over the longer term, that investment would add modestly to higher-education expenditures but more than pay off by increasing the number of students who can enroll, graduate, and contribute to the nation's economy.

3. Innovation to enhance educational quality. We further call on the Department of Education to focus half of the proposed $2.5-billion college access and completion incentive fund on efforts to create innovative community-college policies and practices and then evaluate them. The two-year sector is not only overutilized and underresourced, but it also has too little information about how to effectively improve student outcomes. That problem can and must be remedied by connecting practitioners with well-trained researchers who share a common goal of helping community colleges succeed in meeting goals and gaining more support in return. For example, practitioners and researchers could collaborate on putting in place and evaluating approaches that accelerate progress in developmental education, integrate occupational and academic content in new curricula, or develop systemwide assessment and placement policies.

4. Accountability through student data systems. Finally, the federal government should support the improvement of student-level data systems to track community-college performance. That is the only way to operationalize real accountability and track progress and improvement. Most states do not have the ability to track individual outcomes throughout the education system and into the labor force. But thanks to the federal stimulus package, more will have that opportunity. Those efforts must be continued, for without the ability to evaluate outcomes based on hard data, student and institutional progress cannot be measured.

Sara is participating in a discussion of the report at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC today.

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