Okay, perhaps use of the term “Solution” is a vast exaggeration. But two things are clear. First, as described in my August 8 blog, The Community College Contribution, community colleges play a vital, probably irreplaceable role in our society and our communities. They give millions of people, particularly lower-income minorities and immigrants, unprecedented opportunities to climb the socio-economic ladder and provide many of the office workers required to man administrative and supervisory ranks, the health-care workers required to ensure broad and economical delivery and the manufacturing workers needed to manage today’s computer-controlled processes.
Second, as I discussed in my August 22 blog, The Community College Crisis, this system is in a state of crisis. Many of these challenges are attributable to the tremendous expectations we have of the system and burdens we place on it to address the limitations of the country’s secondary education system. These pressures are being exacerbated by the Great Recession and especially by the huge cutbacks in government funding of these schools.
The county, as President Obama explained in July 2009, has no choice. The community college has suffered through “decades of federal neglect” where “community colleges are treated like an afterthought—if they’re thought of at all.” We MUST find a way of addressing these challenges—and of paying for them.
Better Colleges Require More Money
The bad news is that nobody really knows how to fix our community college system. The good news is, there is no shortage of ideas. Recommendations as to how to address these challenges and help community colleges deliver on their true potential come from a range of sources and cover virtually every aspect of these institutions’ missions.
Some, such as the American Association of Community Colleges and especially the Community College Research Center, focus exclusively on and provide detailed research on all aspects of the colleges’ missions. Others, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Kaufman Foundation address a broad range of policy-based issues, but each have designated education research focuses.
These, along with a wide range of other research organizations, universities, government bodies and NGOs have published numerous studies with specific recommendations for helping community colleges improve governance and better address one or more of their five core missions:
- Transfer Education, to educate students who plan to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a BS/BA degree;
- Career Education, to prepare Associate Degree graduates to directly enter the workforce;
- Developmental Education, to provide remedial education for high school graduates who are not academically ready to enroll in college-level courses;
- Industry Training, which is contracted for by companies to provide training for specific jobs; and, to a lesser extent
- Continuing Education, which typically consists of non-credit courses for personal development and interest.
Although recommendations differ for each of these areas, there tend to be common treads across virtually all. Many recommendations, for example, entail some combination of:
- Better and more systematically integrating academic and technical curricula in conjunction with apprenticeship programs that provide real world experience (as pioneered by so-called “career academies”;
- Increasing and improving counseling programs to improve career planning and help students select courses that are most appropriate for their goals. (This, however, assumes that classes are available, which is becoming increasingly rare.)
- Greatly expanding the use of IT tools to improve pedagogy and learning outcomes, engage students through multimedia and educational games, facilitate distance learning and give students much greater flexibility in when and where they learn;
- Creating specific goals and success metrics and continually measuring progress toward achieving these goals; and
- Increasing funding and increasingly allocating these funds on the basis of success in achieving and making progress toward defined, measurable objectives.
Money is becoming increasingly problematic. As discussed in my last blog, The Community College Crisis, state and local governments—which typically account for about 60% of community college funding—are slashing public school funding and contributions (which account for less than 5%) are also generally falling. This leaves three funding sources.
- Tuition. While rising, tuition account for only 20% of school budgets. Moreover, increases are constrained by the need to keep community colleges accessible to lower income students;
- Business funding of specialized courses. Given that business contracts currently account for less than 10% of community college revenues, it will be difficult to grow contracts fast enough to make a meaningful dent in funding shortfalls. Even so, private sector partnerships can yield an additional, even greater benefit, as by allowing colleges to continually track emerging business needs and adapt their programs to ahead of these needs; and
- The federal government. The federal government currently accounts for only 10% of community college funding and provides less money per student than it gives to public four-year schools and in some cases, even for-profit colleges. Surprisingly, however, the feds are stepping up to the plate.
With a Little Help from Government Friends
There is no question that the federal government has short-changed the nation’s community colleges over the last several decades. For example, it allocates only 10% of its total post-secondary education funding budget to community colleges. This is despite the fact that these schools enroll 35% of all post-secondary students. Moreover, since many of these funds are based primarily on enrollment, without regard to whether their students earn degrees or get good jobs, this funding often skews community colleges’ incentives toward inputs and processes, rather than outcomes, like student success. A February 2009 Brookings study called on the federal government to address these deficiencies by instituting four primary reforms:
- Institute a new focus on national goals guided by an accountability system that tracks and reports outcomes, such as completion of a minimum number of credits, earning a degree, and landing a good-paying job;
- Double federal funding from $6 billion to $12 billion (from about 20% to 30% of their total budgets) to help community colleges achieve these goals and fund much needed upgrades to their infrastructure, technology, and faculties.
- Reformulate the basis on which federal funds are awarded so that, over time, the majority of funds will be based not on the basis of enrollment, but on the colleges’ performance on the above goals; and
- Stimulate greater innovation in community college policies and practices to enhance educational quality.
The federal government seems to have gotten the message. In July 2009, President Obama highlighted his commitment to addressing these needs by announcing his Community College Initiative. The $12 billion plan is intended to improve educational facilities, increase and improve the utilization of technology and boost graduation rates—producing 5 million more community college grads by 2020. This is big money, considering that the feds have traditionally provided community colleges with only $2 billion in direct support per year—about one-tenth what it spends on public four-year schools.
Although the plan will eliminate the role (and an estimated $9 billion in costs) of private banks in managing the federal student loan program, it will dramatically increase the role of the private sector in other ways, as by encouraging them to help colleges improve remedial-education and counseling programs, and develop online curricula. The proposal would also increase funding of, reduce barriers to qualifying for and increase student access to Pell grants. Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that could pump an additional $500 million into the creation of open, online courses.
Moreover, as I mention in my previous blog, community colleges are also likely to benefit from new Department of Education rules that will free up additional aid dollars by cutting aid to a number of for-profit schools.
The community college crisis is also attracting attention and help from other sources. Although charitable contributions are generally falling along with the economy, a growing number of charitable foundations recognize and are seeking to at least partially address community college shortfalls. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, has pledged up to $110 million (of its $3 billion overall education fund) to community colleges and has recently earmarked $12.9 million to organizations that that are having success in improving community college graduation rates, developing tools to facilitate Web 2.0-based faculty collaboration and creating new IT-based learning tools. And this is in addition to the Foundation’s participation in a twelve-foundation group that has committed $500 million to improving learning outcomes—largely through the use of IT-based tools—across all types of educational institutions. Hopefully, such investments, combined with foundations’ growing focus on quantifiable results, will impose some of the discipline that community colleges will need to succeed in a world that will be characterized by tighter and tighter budgets.