TOPICS > Education

New Community College Standards Could Hike Graduation Rates

April 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Community colleges are playing an increasing role in the country's higher educational system, but a high percentage of their students never finish their coursework. Jeffrey Brown talks to experts about a new national accountability standard aimed at bolstering graduation rates.

JEFFREY BROWN: How well are community colleges doing at educating and graduating students? In an economic downturn, and with costs so high, the nation’s nearly 1,200 community colleges play an increasing role in higher education, with an enrollment of nearly 12 million, or 44 percent of all undergraduates.

But there’s growing concern that too many never complete their course work or certification. Today, leaders of community colleges announced new plans to tackle the problem.

Joining us to discuss this are Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, and chair of the board of directors for the American Association of Community Colleges, and Hilary Pennington, who oversees higher education programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing funding for the new effort.

And, for the record, the foundation is a “NewsHour” underwriter.

Mary Spilde, I’ll start with you.

First, fill in the picture for us a bit. Who — who is today attending community colleges, and how do you see your role as having changed within higher education?

MARY SPILDE, president, Lane Community College: Well, many of our students are underrepresented, underprepared students, first-generation students.

But we’re seeing, in this downturn in the economy, an increasing number of people with degrees who are coming back for job training to learn a new skill.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how does that change the role within higher education overall?

MARY SPILDE: Well, community colleges have always been open-access institutions. And we intend to continue to focus on access.

I think one of the things that we’re understanding now, as we disaggregate the data on how our students are doing, is that we need to do a better job of completion. Of course, graduation is only one measure for our students, because many come back to do a couple of classes to upgrade their skills for work.

But, nevertheless, even having said that, we do want to make sure that we do a better job of assessing what students’ goals are, and then bring student service supports to bear to make sure that they achieve their goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Hilary Pennington, how serious a problem is this of completion, or lack of completion? And is it your sense that community colleges are not paying enough attention to it?

HILARY PENNINGTON, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Completion is a serious problem, not just for community colleges, but for four-year institutions as well.

Half of all young Americans — fewer than half of all young Americans have achieved either a two- or a four-year degree by the time they reach age 30. Community colleges are key, though, as Mary said, because they are the open-access institution.

And particularly for low-income students who want to start at a college that is affordable and close to home, large numbers of them go to community college. And they do go to community college expecting and hoping to get some kind of a credential. They’re not the students coming back for a short-term course.

JEFFREY BROWN: But — so, why aren’t they — why aren’t they finishing their course work or their degree?

HILARY PENNINGTON: Well, part — there are many reasons for that.

Mary spoke to one of the most important ones that our data shows as well, which is remedial education. The large numbers of students who start take tests that are placement tests for putting them into college credit classes, and they fail them. Sixty percent of all students who start at community colleges get put into remedial education, no fault of the community colleges.

They come academically underprepared. But, once they go into remedial education, community colleges can do a much, much better job of innovating to help students complete those courses. And that’s what we’re excited about working with community colleges to help them do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us what else — staying with you, in a nutshell, what else are you proposing that — that should be done?

HILARY PENNINGTON: We — in addition to working to reinvent and get breakthrough results in remedial education, we are working to help create (AUDIO GAP) online kinds of courses. We think technology can be a huge asset for colleges, as they try to help today’s students do better.

One of the challenges we have is that most education institutions for higher ed were not built for today’s students. Seventy-five percent of all students who are in college, two- or four-year, are working — they’re combining school and work. So, we think that technology that helps students do better while they’re in school and be able to get access to education in non-traditional hours is an important piece of the puzzle as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mary Spilde, what — what — your — your group announced voluntary guidelines to — to go forward with this.

Tell us about — tell us about that. What is it that you think would get to the heart of the problem?

MARY SPILDE: Well, what we do today was sign a call to action to our over 1,100 community colleges across the nation to really try and develop a culture of completion.

We have been focused on access and quality. And now we need to just have increased focus on completion. And, so, we — we’re really calling on our colleges to start the discussions about how they can build on existing good practices for completion and have more focus for students, things like more intensive advising, tutoring, supplemental instruction, as Hilary mentioned, looking at how we can help technology, have that built into the pedagogy in the classroom.

And, of course, as she mentioned, developmental ed is a very important piece of what we do because of the fact that so many students come underprepared.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does everyone in the community college community feel that this is a problem? I mean, I know there’s been some question of counting people as degree students or not, you know, a sense of what exactly do students come there for?

Is there, do you think, now a general agreement that this is an important issue?

MARY SPILDE: Well, I think there has been concern about evaluating community colleges using a university lens, that is, the degree completion.

But, even with that, I think all of us who are committed to community colleges and the kinds of students that we serve understand that, to be competitive in a global economy, students need to be credentialed. And, therefore, we need to do whatever it takes to help them complete certificates, degrees, and get ready to move on, either to universities or to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, so, what kind of measurements or yardsticks are being talked about to — to really see if there’s progress being made?

MARY SPILDE: Well, we do have a group working on a voluntary framework of accountability right now to think about the kinds of measures that would make sense for community colleges.

But there are some very successful models out there right now. For example, the state of Washington has been working on momentum points that basically packages a course of study together at different points along the pathway to a degree. And they’re having some success in using those data to figure out what kinds of things need to be done to improve completion and lead students along the path to a degree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Hilary Pennington, weigh in there, I mean, on this notion of yardsticks.

Are there — are — I guess your money that will help fund this is sort of a carrot. Are there some sticks involved in — in really pushing this to make sure that, you know, the students are being measured, that the institutions are being measured for — for outcomes?

HILARY PENNINGTON: We think it’s — it’s very, very important to begin to have data.

You know, one of the striking things is, because we have not asked ourselves this question, we have very, very poor information that a college could use for its baseline graduation rates or to track what it does that helps it improve, one of the things that Mary spoke about, the I-BEST program here in Washington State.

But, all along the line, we think that it will be important to create structures that help students go further faster. You know, the way we structure education today, where they go three times a week for a one-hour course, there’s got to be a way to help students move more quickly, we think, through programs of study.

So, partly, we want to help colleges get data and information that will help them understand where they start from and if they do better. And I think, over time, we need to look at how — how higher education is financed.

Most states finance higher education based on a full-time enrollment. They base their funding based on how many people enroll, and not how many complete. And we understand that that’s a very complicated issue. But I think, over time, we need to be looking at both the enrollment and the completion.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I was wondering…

HILARY PENNINGTON: … about financing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m wondering, just as you said, given the differences in locales and states, is it possible to create a national rubric for the funding questions, for the standards questions?

HILARY PENNINGTON: I think a good place to start would be to agree on a national measure for measuring what a graduation rate looks like.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that — is that possible, Mary Spilde, given the differences that many of your members must face?

MARY SPILDE: Well, it’s true that we have state systems and we have locally governed community colleges, but, obviously, we’re very committed to student success.

And I think the voluntary framework of accountability that is being worked on right now actually funded by the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation will give us some measures that local colleges will be able to adopt.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Mary Spilde and Hilary Pennington, thank you both very much.

MARY SPILDE: Thank you.