Community Colleges

Community-College Gathering Takes Up Challenges, Familiar and Fanciful

April 20, 2015

Shrinking enrollments and tightening budgets are challenging community colleges in their push to graduate 50 percent more students with marketable credentials by 2020, speakers said on Sunday at the annual meeting here of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Spurred by a flurry of recent reform efforts, two-year colleges should be 90 percent of the way there by 2020 if current progress continues, they said.

But while association officials gave a generally upbeat projection of their headway in reaching the goals six national community-college groups set in 2010, others were more skeptical.

The meeting, which has drawn about 2,000 attendees, continues this week.

Chutes and Ladders

EAB, a consulting group based in Washington, plans to describe in a presentation on Monday how it sent 20 “secret shoppers” posing as prospective students to campuses nationwide to try to determine why more than 35 percent of their potential students drop out sometime between submitting their applications and the first day of class.

The researchers received permission from the colleges to test their enrollment processes by posing as potential students, but they didn’t say when they’d be coming or what they’d look like. Their personas covered the range of ages and experiences the nation’s community colleges attract. One, for instance, pretended to be an 18-year-old with no clue of what he wanted to major in, while another was a 30-year-old dead-set on becoming a nurse despite rock-bottom mathematics scores.

The researchers’ conclusion? The process of applying, learning about financial aid, testing for college readiness, and signing up for classes is not nearly as linear as administrators like to believe, according to Sarah Zauner, EAB’s practice manager.

“It’s more like a game of Chutes and Ladders,” she said. Sign up for classes late, and you’ll slide down a chute; find on-campus child care, and you’ll climb a ladder. Ms. Zauner plans to illustrate the meandering pathway in a replication of the children’s game she’ll play with attendees on Monday.

The researchers, who also interviewed hundreds of students, said some had been flummoxed by “administrator-speak,” struggling to translate unfamiliar terms like “Fafsa” or “bursar.” Some even missed classes because they didn’t know that "MWF" meant that the classes met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Students often received conflicting advice from different offices, she said, and didn’t always realize that a quick review before taking the college-readiness test could prevent them from landing in a semester or more of remedial classes.

Another challenge community colleges face in reaching completion goals that President Obama has also exhorted them to meet is their reliance on part-time faculty members, who are often brought in at the last minute.

Kay M. McClenney, a longtime national community-college leader who now serves as a senior adviser to the community-colleges association, drew a laugh when she bemoaned the number of classes listed in catalogs as being “taught by faculty members whose last name is ‘staff.’”

Drones and Other Opportunities

The meeting is also providing a forum for educators with new ideas, like the Base 11 project being promoted by Andrew C. Jones, a former chancellor of the Coast Community College District, in California.

Mr. Jones, who will serve as its chief operating officer, said Base 11 would focus on entrepreneurial opportunities for “high-potential, low-resource” students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health, or what’s commonly known now as the STEM-H fields.

The idea grew out of an incubator for creative, collaborative projects that he helped establish at Coast Community.

One area the project will focus on is the growing field of unmanned aircraft, including drones. By 2020 the nation will need about a half million drone operators who could earn $75,000 to $125,000 a year, Mr. Jones said in an interview on Sunday. Companies will need community college-trained workers to program, maintain, repair, and fly them.

Working with unmanned aircraft is likely to be an easier sell to many potential students than some of the traditional pathways community colleges offer.

“You talk to a 15-year-old about becoming a plumber, which is a valued profession that pays well, and he’ll look at you like you have horns growing out of your head,” Mr. Jones said. “But anything involving robots is sexy and exciting.”

Base 11 put out a pitch at the meeting for 11 community colleges willing to “turbo boost” their STEM-education programs by teaming up with the project.

The Skills Gap

Expanding opportunities for students to major in STEM fields is a big priority for many community colleges, which continue to hear from employers that there aren’t nearly enough graduates with the technical skills they require.

Colleges have been scrambling to upgrade training programs to tailor them to local industry needs.

Privately, though, some community-college officials complained here that companies were cutting back their own job-training programs and expecting colleges to keep up with the constantly changing technical training required for the plethora of industries they’re preparing students to enter.

By the time a job-skills program goes through a curriculum committee, is approved, and rolled out, it’s time to update it, they said.

“In some cases, industries are using the so-called skills gap to justify keeping wages low,” said one official, who asked not to be identified.

But Mr. Jones said that while that may be true in a few cases, “on the whole, I think the skills gap complaint is legit.” Still, he’d like to focus on promoting curricula that prepare creative thinkers who can “manipulate technology before it’s invented” and solve problems that are not yet known.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

Corrections (4/20/2015, 11 a.m.): This article originally misspelled the first name of a manager at EAB, the consulting group formerly known as the Education Advisory Board. She is Sarah Zauner, not Sara Zauner. The text has also been updated with EAB's new name.