Larry Gordon/EdSource Today
Los Angeles City College, one of the state's 116 community colleges.

California’s governing body overseeing the state’s 114 community colleges voted unanimously today to approve a new set of goals and commitments aimed at significantly increasing the transfer and degree-completion rates of community college students.

While praising the plan’s targets, members of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors also questioned whether the goals can become reality given the state’s complicated structure for governing community colleges.

“It’s very impressive obviously to see this document done and the need that we have statewide to be more aspirational, to have goals, to have strategies of core commitments,” said board member Joseph J. Bielanski. “The question to me is how does this get rolled out to the 72 districts so that the 72 districts become invested in this?”

Bielanski was referring to the 72 locally elected boards of trustees that actually run the state’s 114 community colleges. The statewide board of governors sitting in Sacramento together with the chancellor’s office oversee the spending of $8.6 billion in state funds aimed at community colleges.

Board member Scott Budnick said that while the details of how to see the document’s goals through to completion can be finalized later, “this is the first time I have been on this board where I have been truly inspired,” he said.

“I want something big and huge and something to strive for and this is it.”

The document, which EdSource reported on Monday, challenges the community college system to do the following in five years:

  • A 20 percent increase in the number of community college students who acquire associate’s degrees, specific skillsets, credentials or certificates “that prepare them for an in-demand job;”
  • A 35 percent increase in the number of community college students transferring annually to a University of California or California State University campus;
  • Increase from 60 percent to 69 percent the number of students completing career and technical education programs who get jobs in their fields of study;
  • Reduce the number of course units students accumulate before earning associate’s degrees from 87 to 79 (lack of clarity on which courses to take lead many students to enroll in more classes than they need for a degree).

California’s community colleges educate more than 2 million students. In 2016 just 48 percent of students who enrolled at a California community college left with a degree, certificate, or transferred after six years.

If approved and carried out, the plan could lead to more Californians with two- or four-year degrees entering the workforce. A recent report calculated that the state needs 1.1 million additional workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 to remain economically competitive.

The vision document was the brainchild of the system’s chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who assumed his position December 19, 2016.

The chief framework for the vision document is a newly approved initiative worth $150 million called Guided Pathways, which was included in the 2017-2018 state budget. Guided Pathways aims to create a roadmap for students to graduate or transfer on time by helping them select classes that are relevant to their degree programs.

Many students are bogged down with courses they don’t need because the ones essential to their major were unavailable or full. Some students intentionally enroll in unnecessary courses to avoid losing a portion of their state financial aid for not being full or half-time students.

Much of the vision document’s success hinges on the work put in by the system’s 72 locally-elected district boards that together oversee the state’s 114 community colleges. While the chancellor’s office can set policy, local boards carry out those plans. Those details, and others, will begin to be ironed out Tuesday at the board “retreat,” where Board of Governors members will discuss ways to implement the goals and commitments of the vision document. Another meeting, likely in September, will hammer out a timeline for implementation.

Amy Supinger, a consultant who was one of the principal writers of the document, said during the board meeting that “the report is envisioning a very different function for the chancellor’s office than [it has] traditionally served in the past — and that is as a provider of a sort of customer service to colleges.”

Supinger added that the vision document encourages college leaders and local board members to align their current goals with those in the vision document — including the increase in degrees and transfers. “We did not envision a new cumbersome, compliance-driven process. That was the last thing we wanted out of this,” she said at the meeting.

Another board member, Man Phan, asked whether the community college system can be better integrated with the state’s public K-12 system. “Why can’t we bring the community college education to these high school students so that by the time they finish high school, [they] would have 30, 40, if not 50 units, under their belt and moving into college as a junior status?” he asked.

Other board members were surprised to learn that the average number of units a student accumulates before earning an associate’s degree was 87. “I was really shocked by that,” said board vice president Tom Epstein.

The typical associate’s degree requires 60 units; a figure as high as 87 units means students are taking the equivalent of an extra year to complete a two-year degree. Epstein wondered whether the vision document should commit to lowering the average number of units accrued below the current goal of 79.

Supinger, the document’s co-writer, responded that reducing the average number of units for an associate’s from 87 to 79 is a colossal undertaking and shouldn’t be underestimated. “I understand why on the surface it doesn’t look horribly aggressive,” said Supinger, but advised the board “to live with that goal for a couple of years and see what kind of movement you get … and decide in a couple of years whether or not you want to pursue it more aggressively.”

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