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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