For Community Colleges, a National Spotlight Is a Mixed Blessing

April 21, 2013

When Richard Rhodes arrived as president of Austin Community College, in 2011, he was greeted by a highway billboard, sponsored by the Texas Association of Business, proclaiming "4 percent of Austin Community College students graduate in 3 years. Is that a good use of tax $?"

Fast-forward two years, and graduation rates are once again being scrutinized, not only by businesses but also by state lawmakers, who are expected to weigh student-performance measures in doling out about 10 percent of their budget allocations to colleges. But this time, the scrutiny reflects a more nuanced understanding of the challenges that two-year colleges face, Mr. Rhodes told colleagues on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, which continues here this week with more than 2,000 people in attendance.

"The expectations are higher than they've ever been before, but legislators are beginning to understand the trajectory and pathways of our students," Mr. Rhodes said during a session on college readiness.

The performance measures that lawmakers in Texas and other states are considering go beyond the calculation of the three-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students, who make up a small proportion of community-college students. They include factors like the number of students who make it through developmental classes and into credit-bearing courses, and those who complete 15 or 30 credit hours.

Community colleges have received unprecedented attention ever since President Obama, in 2009, made them the centerpiece of his higher-education agenda, challenging them to produce five million more graduates by 2020.

"That was the good news and at the same time it was the bad news because it put a big white spotlight on us to get to it," said Rachel Singer, vice president for community-college relations at Achieving the Dream, a national program aimed at helping more community-college students succeed.

One challenge facing two-year colleges, according to the speakers, is that colleges are having to educate more students from more-diverse backgrounds with less money.

At Northern Virginia Community College, for instance, the college's enrollment has grown by 28 percent over the past four years, while its state budget allocations have shrunk by 20 percent.

Meanwhile, too many students are being placed inappropriately in remedial classes on the basis of a single test, according to Robert G. Templin Jr., the college's president. As a result, students who might have just needed a little brushing up in a few areas are getting sucked into remedial classes, a vortex where many become discouraged and drop out, he said.

Some higher-education groups would like to see remedial courses scaled way back or scrapped entirely, with remediation embedded in credit-bearing courses that would give students a feeling of momentum. Skeptics say that struggling students would be even more likely to fail under that scenario and that faculty members would be overburdened by such a change.

One goal of the association's 21st Century Initiative, which was published last year, is by 2020 to reduce by half the number of students who come to college unprepared and to double the number of students who complete remedial courses and make it through gateway credit courses.