A massive reform effort to increase graduation and transfer rates at the state’s community colleges is in full swing since passage of a 2012 law requiring campuses to significantly increase graduation and transfer rates.
Yet a new report turns those goals slightly askew by arguing that the relentless focus on such traditional notions of success as earning an associate’s degree or certificate or transferring to a four-year college ignores a large population of students who achieve their goals through shorter programs. Overlooking that impact undercuts a key mission of community colleges and ultimately distorts campuses’ accomplishments, the report said.
“There are fields where you can take a (community college) class or two and bump your earnings by 15 percent. What other options do people have to raise their salaries that much?” said report co-author Kathy Booth, a researcher with WestEd, a nonprofit education research, development and service agency. Yet, under current accountability measures “these students are counted as failures,” Booth said.
She and co-author Peter Riley Bahr, associate professor at the University of Michigan, call these students “skills-builders,” first-time college students who have already been working for a number of years – their average age is 37 – and who enroll in a limited number of courses in a specific discipline to increase their salaries or improve their workforce skills.
“They needed something quick, it helped them with their jobs and they got in and out quickly to do that,” said California Community Colleges Vice Chancellor Patrick Perry.
The study identified about 50,000 students, or one in seven students entering community college for the first time each year, as skills-builders. They typically take career technical education courses – construction, manufacturing, engineering, industrial technology, corrections or specialized computer programs such as Microsoft Excel.
Because they’re supporting themselves, and often families, these students need the flexibility to be able to take a couple of narrowly focused courses instead of the full slate of liberal arts classes required for degrees and many certificates. Night courses are popular for this reason, Booth said, as are programs that can be taken in bursts, such as child care programs, where it takes six credits – about two courses – to become an assistant teacher, 12 credits for an associate teacher, and 32 to be certified as a site supervisor.
“For a woman with young children who must juggle child care and a job, a skills-builder pathway in child development (or) early care and education may be her first rung on a ladder out of poverty,” Booth and Bahr wrote in the report.
Many campuses also offer their own certificates to prepare people for specific local industry needs that may require as few as six units. Others prepare students to pass state and professional licensing exams and certifications, such as in welding, child care and firefighting. About 41 percent of skills-builders say they’ve earned one of these, but since the chancellor’s office doesn’t collect this information, the achievements go unreported and the students end up being classified as dropouts.
Students say they’re getting what they want from these classes. In a separate survey of nearly 11,600 skills-builder students at 35 California community colleges, more than half said they were “very satisfied” with their courses and another 35 percent were satisfied community college customers.
Given their salary boosts it’s no wonder. The survey reported an average wage gain of 28 percent, from $18.34 to $23.51 an hour.
A different measure
Paychecks are a big motivation for many of these students, Perry said, and if they got a raise or promotion as a result of taking a few classes, that should be one of the college accountability measures tracked by the chancellor’s office, the state Legislature and local college boards of trustees.
Because the outcomes of these students aren’t tracked,
community colleges may have a lot more successful students than they get credit for, the report’s authors said. That could work against them, Bahr said.
“Given the current fiscal constraints and the pressure on community colleges to demonstrate performance, there is a great risk that workforce-related programs will be cut significantly,” Bahr said.
Making the case for short-term programs will require a lot more information. For starters, not much is known about these students.
The difficulty is in “trying to capture a piece of the population that’s traditionally been seen as a failure of the system,” Perry said.
His office has been working to identify skills-builder students, to look at what courses they take, how it helps them and which campuses show the best outcomes. One they get that data, Perry said it could be included in the community college system’s Student Success Scorecard, an online site that lets prospective students see which programs and campuses have the best success rates.
Booth and Bahr are also continuing their research to help colleges better understand the needs of these students and design better strategies to help them.
Until they know more, it’s too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, said Linda Collins, executive director of Learning Works, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provided some funding for the study.
“I wouldn’t want to take this research to say certificates and degrees aren’t important,” Collins said. “I would take it to say they’re not the whole story.”