Panel wants community college students to draw up individual education plans

Photo courtesy SMBC

Photo courtesy SMBC

Students would be required to draw up an “individual education plan” when they enter a California community college program, as part of a drive to ensure that more of them attain their education goals.

That is a key recommendation of the 21-person California Community College Student Success Task Force mandated by the Legislature and which released its draft report last week.

What’s more, students who make progress towards meeting their goals as outlined in the plan would be rewarded with “priority enrollment” in crowded classes, according to the report.  Those who didn’t make sufficient progress could find their access to classes, and even financial aid, restricted.

“The idea of creating an individual education plan for each student is long overdue,” said Robert Gabriner, director of the Education Leadership Program at San Francisco State, who has been involved in the community college system for four decades.

Having students draw up these plans would yield another advantage: it would help colleges plan for and focus their course offerings on what students need most to meet their academic goals.

“Over a period of time, the mission of the California Community Colleges has grown to add many community interest classes at the expense of key basic skills, career, and technical or transfer classes,” the task force report asserted.

Students who are taking a single course or enroll in specific, short-term programs would presumably be exempt from drawing up a longer term plan.

Requiring students to declare their plans on entering college runs counter to the more typical laissez-faire approach to American higher education, which encourages students to explore different options before settling on a major, often in their junior year.

But such an approach has little relevance in community colleges where degree programs are two years long. Often students have little or no prior contact with or knowledge of higher education and don’t know how to focus their studies. As a result, many take far more credits than they need, and even then don’t meet their educational goals. Others drop out before making much progress at all.

In addition, during a time when many students can’t get the classes they need because of budget cuts, becoming more focused is a necessity, said Steve Weiner, co-founder of the Campaign for College Opportunity. “If we are going to have to ration a community college education, we have to give priority to students who know why they are there and are prepared to do the work to get there,” he said.

Said Linda Michalowski, the California community colleges’ vice chancellor for student services and special programs, “In public education we are increasingly unable to accommodate students exploring forever.”

In theory, under the state’s Matriculation Act of 1986, students were supposed to declare “a specific educational objective,” which they would reach “within a reasonable period after enrollment.” Many community colleges ask students to file a student education plan along those lines, but only about 30 percent of students have done so, according to college officials. Even when they do, there are few or no consequences if they don’t follow it.

“The actual implementation of student education plans has fallen way short of its original vision,” said Gabriner.

Part of the problem is that students were required to meet with a counselor to draw up a plan, and with growing enrollments and a shrinking numbers of counselors, that has proven to be an obstacle many students could not overcome.

Under the proposed plan, students would be expected to declare a specific program or major, including specific courses, which the colleges could use as a basis for course scheduling.

Essential to the success of the initiative will be coming up with the technology that encourages students to think about and file their plans online, or select out students who need more face-to-face assistance.  “Well-thought-out technology could help many students define, explore, and establish a rational education plan,” said Michalowski.

But setting up such a system would require an investment of funds, which may be difficult to obtain in light of the state’s bleak fiscal situation.

The California Community College Student Success Task Force will now look at how other states such as Florida have encouraged students to file education plans, as well as California community colleges like San Diego City College which have set up easy-to-use online orientation programs that could serve as models for the proposed system.

Task force members emphasized that their proposal for individual education plans shouldn’t be implemented in isolation, but together with other recommendations in the report, such as linking fee waivers for low-income students to education outcomes.

“In 1986, we knew a student evaluation plan would help students succeed, ” said Michalowski. “This go-round we are determined to make it work for all students.”

In coming posts, EdSource will examine some of the Student Success Task Force’s other principal recommendations. The task force will hold a series of four town hall meetings over the next month on its report in different regions of the state. 

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5 Responses to “Panel wants community college students to draw up individual education plans”

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  1. Louis Freedberg on Nov 20, 2011 at 7:53 am11/20/2011 7:53 am

    • 000

    Here is the response from the Chaffee Community College Academic Senate:

    Encouraging students to declare a program of study as early as possible is a sound educational idea; however, many community college students come to college specifically to explore their possible selves, and many make changes to original goals even if they could identify a program of study by the second semester of their college experience. The college is also alarmed by the possibility that a requirement to declare a major may force students to do so precipitously, which may result in a narrowing of the diversity of graduates that are needed for our communities to thrive. The college is concerned that students who need time to consider their goals will be punished by other recommendations that may compromise their financial support or registration priority. The recommendation is attempting to curtail endless wandering, but wandering and experimentation are not necessarily the same activity when defining academic trajectory. Requiring students to participate in goal-setting activities and pathway thinking, through both instruction and support services, can prevent the wandering without coercing students into a commitment. Instead of penalizing students for wandering, we could limit the number of “exploration” units a student could have. This would prevent the excessive wandering while still allow for appropriate exploration.

  2. edfundwonk on Nov 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm11/9/2011 2:34 pm

    • 000

    @ Jason — Put 250 million monkeys in front of typewriters for a sufficiently long time and you’ll eventually get part of a Shakespeare sonnet. Steve Jobs also dropped out of college. Should we encourage kids to drop out of college so that they can become the next Steve Jobs? Seriously, the issue is how to set priorities when resources are insufficient to continue the status quo.

    On the battlefield, it’s called triage. Your goal is to maximize the number of lives saved within the limits of your resources (time, labor, and equipment). The best way to achieve this goal is to start with the least wounded and move to the worst wounded. If the line is too long, those at the end of the line may die. The expenditure of resources that is avoided by ignoring a death, though, may allow the medical team to save the lives of three soldiers whose injuries are less severe. You also direct all your resources to achieving the goal. You don’t let a medic play with his GameBoy when he’s needed to attend to the wounded.

    The community colleges are fighting for their fiscal lives. And with the Legislative Analyst projecting another deficit of $20 billion, things aren’t going to get better. The colleges therefore must engage in triage. First, though, they need to establish the goal by answering the question, “What is the core mission of the community colleges?” The Task Force’s answer is that it is imparting the knowledge & skills needed to (1) master a trade or (2) achieve a specific educational goal, i.e., earning an AA degree and/or being prepared to transfer to a four-year institute of higher education.” In other words, the colleges are striving to maximize the number of students who achieve these goals, within the constraints of limited resources. You then need specific action steps to move you to the goal most cost-effectively.

    The Student Success Task Force report recommends many specific action steps. I won’t repeat what is in the report. I will state, though, that I see the use of scarce resources to teach community interest courses as antithetical to the goals stated above. Just as you don’t let the medic play with his GameBoy when there are still wounded soldiers, you shouldn’t be teaching clog dancing when there are students who can’t get the academic or vocational classes they need to achieve their goals.

  3. Jason on Oct 31, 2011 at 9:37 am10/31/2011 9:37 am

    • 000

    I think it ironic that we are looking at making students focus when Steve Jobs mentions in his graduation speech that it was his interest in taking a caligraphy class which was totally unrelated to anything he was doing that eventually lead him to create Apple. He wanted something that was more aesthetically pleasing than Windows. It could be that random exploration that creates the next billion dollar idea. You put too many people into boxes and you kill the creative genius that Americans are known for.


    • Brent Zupp on Oct 31, 2011 at 11:55 am10/31/2011 11:55 am

      • 000

      Yes, it’s my fear too. But on the other hand I’ve known so many cc students that just can’t get the classes they need to move on. Those students need to be made a priority. I just hate that it will likely be at the expense of the opportunity to explore.

  4. Brent Zupp on Oct 28, 2011 at 11:30 am10/28/2011 11:30 am

    • 000

    Said Linda Michalowski, the California community colleges’ vice chancellor for student services and special programs, “In public education we are increasingly unable to accommodate students exploring forever.”

    That statement is so sad.

    I understand the need to set out priorities, especially for those seeking to fulfill program requirements–they need to get access to the classes they must fulfill to move forward. Totally true.

    But it’s often through random exploring (taking a class in an unfamiliar area) that great new ideas and creations are formed.

    Though, with all the possibilities available through the internet, I suppose that exploration can be done in so many other ways.

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