California has seen no substantial increases in community college completion rates despite passing a much-anticipated reform law and spending nearly $890 million in subsequent state appropriations, all aimed at bolstering student progress.
Backers of the reforms, however, say signs of positive change are evident and that improvements will accelerate in the near future.
The 2012 Student Success Act sought to increase the share of community college students who earned a certificate, an associate degree or transferred to a four-year college within six years.
When the reforms were first debated, the most recent completion figure available was 48.8 percent from the 2010-11 school year for students who enrolled six years earlier.
“This situation is unacceptable by any measure and demands immediate change,” the bill’s co-author, then state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said when Senate Bill 1456 was finally passed.
The law and an influential report from a statewide task force studying the problems set off a wave of changes in counseling, academic placement, financial aid and transparency at the 113 community colleges.
While some measurements of student progress, such as students passing remedial courses, have shown improvement, the basic statistic that Lowenthal lamented has not budged much.
Statistics released last week show a 48.0 percent completion rate in 2015-16. That’s slightly lower than the 48.8 percent in 2010-11, which was the most current measure before the bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. However, officials are pleased that the new rate has reversed three previous years of decline and is a bump up from the 47.3 percent in 2014-15; it also is above the 47.5 percent in the 2013-14 school year when officials say the reforms began to take hold on campuses.
Yet, that still means a majority of those community college students who began in 2010 never completed any program or transferred to a university.
The rates are statewide. Completion rates for each college vary and are included in the just released data for 2015-16.
These figures are the combined rates of “prepared” students who did not need remedial classes, and those who were “unprepared” and needed remedial help.
College officials say the improvement shows the reforms are starting to kick in and contend that more time is needed to dramatically move the needle. They emphasize that students tracked in recent statistics began college years before the extra counseling was offered and during a time of recessionary cuts in class offerings.
Some experts and critics contend change has been too slow and scattered.
A report in September 2016 by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the system “made significant progress” in implementing the new policies in the Student Success law, which included hiring an estimated 3,000 more staff, such as counselors and orientation leaders. But it found mixed results, noting “though progress is moving in the right direction, it remains slow and uneven.” A little more than half of students statewide newly enrolled in fall 2015 received orientation, planning or other counseling in their first semester, it found.
In a recent interview, statewide California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley defended the law and said it “set into motion a whole set of reforms that continue today and are having a direct impact.” While heartened by the recent uptick, he said it was too soon for the six-year completion rate to show significant progress and that taxpayers will see over the next few years that the reforms in the 2.1-million student system were “worthwhile.”
Oakley and other community college leaders contend that the completion rate has been depressed in part because of limited openings for transfer students until recently at the University of California and California State University. He predicted more improvement soon since transfer spots are expanding, particularly at UC.
Some also point out that the students being measured include many part-timers who juggle school with jobs and families and may have abandoned classes after better work opportunities arose with an improved economy. Student leaders say some of the reform funding might have been better spent on such things as helping students with affordable housing.
Other trends, Oakley and his staff say, are promising. For example, the percentage of students persisting through at least three terms rose from 70.1 percent to 75.9 percent between 2010-11 and 2015-16. The rates of students who finish their required remedial courses and then pass at least one college-level class are up as well: from 41.9 percent to 46.9 percent in English and from 28.8 percent to 34.2 percent in math.
“All those are good signs we are going in the right direction. Are we there yet? By no means,” said Oakley, who was president of Long Beach Community College District before becoming statewide chancellor three months ago. “We still have a long way to go to reform a system that was set in stone pretty much.”
The annual completion rates are backdated, in effect, six years to the initial enrollment of the students being measured. For example, the 48.8 percent completion rate for the 2010-11 school year cited by Lowenthal at the bill signing measured students who enrolled in 2005-06.
Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said too much of the Success Initiative has been piecemeal and unevenly implemented, more like a “bunch of boutique small-scale reforms.”
“I would be reluctant to say (the Student Success initiative) has been a waste since we learned a lot,” Jenkins said. But “if we really want to move the needle” on student completion, the colleges must embrace deeper reforms. He sees more promise with the Guided Pathways system he and his coauthors advocated in their 2015 book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, which Brown has embraced. Those programs would help design academic road maps and transfer pathways that explicitly detail the courses students need for a credential or degree. That strategy requires more intensive changes in student support and planning, as well as shifts in curriculum and teaching methods, he said.
Oakley is a strong supporter of Brown’s proposal to allocate $150 million from Proposition 98 funds to develop such “guided pathway” programs. That would be in addition to the Student Success program, the annual funding of which has risen from $49 million in 2012-13 to $285 million this year, totaling $890 million over those five years.
The 2012 law grew out of a much-debated report earlier that year from a Legislature-created task force of faculty, administrators, students and others who studied ways for college students to speed up their studies and for colleges to improve guidance, technology and financial aid policies. Officials estimate that about 85 percent of the task force recommendations were put into effect through the legislation and policies adopted by the statewide college system and local districts.
But one abandoned recommendation would have blocked low-income students with more than 110 units from receiving a fee waiver. Students complained that was unfair because they could not always get into the classes needed for a major, and instead were filling their schedules with unnecessary electives. Another idea left undone was creation of a “federated” database that could track students’ progress from kindergarten through college.
Still, it was a celebratory moment in August 2012 when the state Legislature passed the Student Success Act. Its backers say it focused the open-access community colleges on student outcomes after generations of near apathy.
Here’s some of what the law set out to do:
- Restructure support services so students receive more counseling and orientation at the start of college and have access to online planning tools showing them what courses they need for their certificates or majors. Establish uniform placement exams across the state and schedule classes that are better based on students’ needs.
- Require students to maintain a minimum grade point average, usually a 2.0 or C, if they are to have their fees waived due to economic need.
- Mandate that all students must declare a course of study by their third semester.
- Require colleges to compile and publicly post a “student success scorecard” that discloses such measurements as completion and persistence rates.
So should the Student Success initiative be considered a success or failure so far? Or is it too difficult to make a judgement amid so many factors influencing student achievement, such as the need to hold down full-time jobs and afford housing?
Andrea Venezia, executive director of the Education Insights Center, or EdInsights, a policy research institute at Sacramento State University, said it is too soon to fully assess the initiative and that reform activity still is spread unevenly around the “behemoth” system of colleges. While it is disappointing that the completion rate has not risen much, she expects it to move up faster in the next three to five years. “This is not an apology or excuse, but the reality of changing the largest higher education system in the world is complicated,” she said.
The Legislative Analyst last fall said that the Student Success plan’s carrot of offering priority class registration to students who attend orientations or meet with counselors is not much of an incentive and perhaps such sessions should be mandated. It also recommended that student success be evaluated within three-year time frames, not just the traditional six years.
Student leaders are somewhat more skeptical about the law’s impact.
Courtney Cooper, president of the systemwide Student Senate, said she has seen some improvements in the availability of counselors and the ability to make telephone appointments with them at some campuses. But she said too much of the initiative focuses on the traditional-age student who enrolls directly out of high school, and not enough on the many older students with children and full-time jobs.
If those students can’t afford child care and rent, their inability to finish a degree in two years “is not from lack of effort,” she said. They face “a heavy burden.” So colleges should also concentrate on social and economic issues, such as establishing food pantries and expanding affordable housing, said Cooper, who attends Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.
Former state Sen. Lowenthal, who is now a U.S. representative, did not answer an EdSource request for comment on his 2012 reform bill.
The law’s coauthor, former state Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, said the reforms may take longer to show results than originally expected and that some colleges are doing better than others. Still, “things are going in the right direction,” said Liu, who is retired from public office and is on the advisory council of California Competes, an organization that seeks to improve higher education.
“Like anything else, it’s really hard to change behavior,” she said. “You have to really keep at it all the time. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”