United we Succeed: Responding to Criticisms of the California Community Colleges

Futures Committee Chair

Higher education in the United States is under attack; references to support this statement are really not necessary to those of us in higher education. We see advances from various fronts relating to all aspects of the way we perform the service that we perform. And, for a variety of reasons, community colleges are the bull’s eye of the higher education target. This is natural: we serve more students than any other segment of higher education, our students are less-prepared and less-supported, our missions are multiple and sometimes in conflict, and we are more likely to have embraced distance education. Time and time again the California community college system is the subject of reports that are received with high regard, despite the lack of peer-review, the often explicit bias, and unjustified leaps from data to policy recommendations.

While the “completion” agenda (calling for an increase in course, certificate, and degree completions, absent quality controls or support to facilitate success), on-going budget shortfalls, new accreditation challenges, and other influences erode and detract from our ability to serve our communities, we also must face critical reports that capture the attention of the general public. At the end of 2010, the California Community College System was faced with one such report – followed by another that aimed directly at the largest district in the state. The first, Moore and Shulock’s Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California’s Community Colleges, is the focus of this article. The second, Moore and Shulock’s Divided We Fail in LA: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in the Los Angeles Community College District, provided an analysis comparable to that conducted in the first, but with the Los Angeles Community College District as its focus. But the purpose of this article is not merely to respond to this one instance of criticism – but to remind us that we must work together to counter such reports. We need to move beyond being offended by conclusions that we view as unwarranted and approach such reports in an academic and intellectual manner, helping those who read such things uncritically to develop an appreciation for where they (the reports, that is) are flawed. This report is selected as a sample; there are many similar reports that have been received unquestioningly by the general public but need to be appropriately dissected and examined. While the California community colleges are certainly not above criticism, data gathered and interpreted with the end-goal of supporting an existing policy agenda does not serve us well.

In order to understand any data, context is required. Numbers do not exist in a vacuum. Comparing community college students to students in other segments of higher education is no more appropriate than comparing the golf skills of Tiger Woods to those of an amateur at a local country club: one has extensive training and experience and is noted for his skills, while the other is someone on a green with a club acquiring and practicing skills. Intersegmental and intrasegmental comparisons are generally inappropriate without the proper controls. Any analysis or claim regarding our students must be made with caution due to the diverse communities served by the community colleges. Furthermore, lamenting changes over time, absent a consideration of context, is yet another inappropriate comparison. While no one is likely to challenge the statement that “College attainment in California has actually been declining with each younger generation…” (Moore & Shulock, 2010, p. 1), to highlight such a statement without delineating the many factors at the state and national level that serve to explain such a decline is unfair. Longitudinal examination of any trend in higher education is going to be altered by broader societal changes, especially when considering segments of higher education that are open access and serve multiple missions.

Moore and Shulock conclude that the real problem does not stem from a lack of college participation, but a lack of completion – an issue that is further exacerbated by the growing Latino population enrolling by preference in the community colleges, where, according to the authors, “transfer to four-year institutions is problematic.” (p. 1). No discussion is provided as to why certain populations opt for the community college over the direct route to the California State University or University of California. And no reference is made to the large number of students who do transfer successfully and fare as well as or better than native university students.1 There is a presumption that policy change is the sole answer, and an answer that will emerge from the compilation of data: if we merely could track cohorts of students effectively this would inform practice and policy. If this is the case, then we are on the verge of finding the answers to all our problems as the ability to track students and to make meaningful comparisons within our system has been dramatically expanded in recent years; the implementation of Accountability Reporting for the Community Colleges (ARCC) by the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office and the Bridging Research, Information, and Culture (BRIC) Initiative lead by the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges signal the system-wide recognition of the value of data, as well as efforts to review it and use it to guide decision-making. The development of ARCC reflects the recognition of the value of data, while the BRIC initiative recognizes the need for objective analysis of data by qualified experts who consider relevant data to inform decision-making. Colleges know what is effective; they offer programs that are aimed at helping just the students that Divided We Fail argues that we need to serve. Yet such programs and efforts have been decimated by budget cuts that intentionally permit colleges to continue offering classes to generate revenue while dramatically reducing the non-revenue generating programs that support student success and facilitate completion.

As with many critical papers, Divided We Fail contains ideas with merit. Alas, the bottom line is ignored: no policy or statutory changes that require funding will ever be implemented at the system level without an identified source of funding. Moore and Shulock state, “The Board of Governors should change system policy, and seek statutory changes as necessary, to ensure that all degree-seeking students are assessed for college readiness and are directed appropriately into courses that will expedite their transition to, and success in, college-level instruction.”(p. iii) This proposal has two fundamental flaws. First, money is needed to implement such change. Second, it lacks a clear definition of “degree-seeking.” Definitions of “degree-seeking” can vary considerably, from definitions based on expressed student intent to those based on some behavioral indicator. If we are to funnel all “degree-seekers” in a given direction at the beginning of their college career, then a broad definition will necessarily be employed and the impact on colleges great. Even if a broad definition is employed and most students are identified as “degree seekers” (necessarily skewing completion data in a negative direction by using too generous a definition), is it appropriate to establish policy that ignores the other groups of students served by community colleges? The authors imply that we should only be working to assist those students who are “degree-seeking.” Don’t all students need assistance in reaching their goals? Such a policy suggestion encourages a shift in priorities towards degree-seeking students and away from the other missions of the community colleges. The goal of the community colleges is to effectively serve all students, regardless of their end-goal and how it factors into external measures of accountability.

Legitimate and reasonable statements in Divided We Fail frequently are followed closely by suggestions that are problematic or difficult to support, such as “The Legislature should take steps to guard against erosion of the historic transfer function of community colleges by investigating recruiting practices and completion rates at for-profit colleges…” (p. iii). This statement presumes that the Legislature has the power to “fix” transfer (which is certainly impaired by the inadequate funding that universities receive to make room for prepared and eligible transfer students, as Moore and Shulock do note) and that community colleges have lessons to learn from for-profit colleges. Absent the provision of additional funds, it can be argued that the practices from for-profit colleges that community colleges could adopt that lead to increased completion would require a compromise in quality. We could award credit for having lived or worked for some certain number of years, pay people to “recruit” and retain students, and offer unstructured design-your-own programs of study. Our transfer partners would likely, and appropriately, take a dim view of such questionable preparation.

Any useful study should begin with appropriate operational definitions. As noted earlier, definitions of “degree seekers” vary and, while overly broad definitions would be appropriate upon student entry into a system of higher education, once a student has completed some coursework a more appropriate definition can be applied. Here is where Moore and Shulock commit one of the most disturbing errors in their paper: “The analyses focus on students identified as ‘degree seekers’ (a term we use to include degrees and certificates) based on having enrolled in more than six units during the first year.” (p. 3) While “degree seekers” could be defined in many ways, this definition is deeply flawed. No constraints were placed on such important issues as the courses being taken, the units enrolled in, or the level of the courses. While the courses were identified as being “credit” courses, they were not necessarily courses that would be taken by students who were actual degree-seekers. A professional returning to earn units for promotion or advancement would be captured by this definition, as would a parent taking a few courses to better support his child’s studies, a returning student who needs a few courses to apply for studies elsewhere, or a high school student taking a few classes to get an early start on college. The source for this definition is cited as “Adelman, C. Proposed amendment for the Student-Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-542) to produce a full and honest account of college completion rates. Obtained through personal communication on June 2, 2008.” A relevant definition of “degree-seekers” at the community college level cannot be based on a suggestion made over twenty years ago regarding federal data collection in the context of investigating student progression within one segment of higher education within the state of California. Such a definition necessarily skews the data contained within the paper: the more common proxies for degree-seekers used by researchers within the California community college system likely would not have yielded the devastatingly negative findings upon which the paper is based. Furthermore, Adelman’s interests appear to be focused not on accurately tracking community college students, but upon preventing anomalies that lead to reporting inaccuracies in other segments of higher education. Once again, comparisons between community college and other segments of higher education are inappropriate and problematic. While one may safely assume that all students entering universities and registering for any number of units are “degree-seeking”, making enrollment a valid proxy for “degree-seeking” at the university level, no such assumption can be made for students in the community colleges, be they in California or elsewhere.

The recommendations in Moore and Shulock’s Divided We Fail are representative of the sort of problematic suggestions for change that confront community colleges with increasing frequency. I want to encourage each and every one of you to be advocates for our system, and for the good that we do and to be educators of the general public. Our messages tend to be more academic and complex: our clever titles don’t make it into headlines, nor do we hold press conferences to tout our accomplishments, nor partner with organizations that will see that our publicity needs are met. But we can educate our boards, our communities, and our legislators. Such outreach on our part is necessary to combat the attacks on our system from reports such as Divided We Fail and other efforts to promote systemic change without a sufficient understanding of our successes and our needs.

1”Data from the California State University demonstrates that community college transfer students perform as well as, or better than, native four-year university students.” http://www.cccco.edu/Portals/4/News/press_releases/2010/Chancellor%20Scott%20Reacts%20to%20Gov.%20Schwarzenegger%20Signing%20SB%201440%20-%20FINAL%20(9-29-10).pdf