One day after the release of a survey of California community colleges showing unprecedented drops in enrollment, the state Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that could bring the first significant reforms in more than a decade to community colleges.
The Student Success Act of 2012, by Democratic Senators Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge, received nearly unanimous bipartisan support. It would give new students more support early on, including orientation and better academic counseling, in an effort to improve dismal graduation rates. Only about a third of community college students earn an associate degree or a certificate, or transfer to a four-year college within six years.
“While many students are getting out of the starting blocks at our community colleges, many fail to get across the finish line,” said Lowenthal in a written statement following Thursday’s vote. “This situation is unacceptable by any measure and demands immediate change.”
The bill stems from the work of the Student Success Task Force, a panel established by the Legislature that developed 22 recommendations aimed at improving completion rates for students through a combination of financial and academic incentives, as well as reprioritizing resources.
Focusing on success is a landmark change for the state’s community college system, said Audrey Dow, with the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity. “For so long we’ve been focused as a state on access only,” she said. “This is the first major reform that puts success at the center of the higher education agenda despite the budget climate. The state is making a statement that we can do this, we will do this.”
The bill still needs to clear one more hurdle: Gov. Jerry Brown. Dow said his position is a big unknown at this point. If he signs it, the Student Success Act would do the following:
- Develop a uniform placement exam for students;
- Require colleges that receive student support service funds to complete and post a student success scorecard showing how well the campus is doing in improving completion rates, especially by race, ethnicity, gender, and income;
- Establish minimum academic standards for students to receive Board of Governors fee waivers, but also develop an appeal process.
A provision that would have barred students with more than 110 units from receiving a fee waiver was amended out of the bill amid complaints that it placed an unfair burden on students who couldn’t always get into the classes they needed. Because budget cuts eliminated many course sections, some students enrolled in whatever was available while waiting for a spot in a required course.
Earlier this week, Chancellor Scott reported that since the 2008-09 academic year, budget cuts triggered what he called “an historic 17 percent drop in enrollment” at community colleges. That’s more than 485,000 students. “Over the past three years we’ve lost more students than are enrolled at all California State university campuses combined,” said Scott. He warned that if Proposition 30, the governor’s ballot initiative to raise taxes, doesn’t pass, community colleges could lose another $338 million in addition to the $805 million already cut from the system. “All the leading economic researchers say California needs more college-educated workers, but we as a state have not made higher education the priority it needs to be. We’re heading in the wrong direction.”
The Student Success Act would deliver a significant financial benefit to students and the state for improving completion rates. The Campaign for College Opportunity’s Dow said a cost analysis by the community college system found that just saving one unit from students seeking a degree or certificate who have to take classes they don’t need would save $7.5 million a year and open up space for 4,000 more students. “That’s not chump change,” said Dow, adding that it’s a conservative estimate.