When a work injury forced carpenter Dave Rynders to find a new career, he decided he’d like to be a nurse and registered at his local community college in San Diego to begin training.
Jennica Dinnell turned to her local community college as a way station toward her dream of attending the University of California, Santa Cruz, to become an artist. With the price of four years of UC tuition too steep for Dinnell, she planned to complete her first two years close to home, then transfer to Santa Cruz for her junior and senior years.
For Jose Sosa, the Los Angeles Trade Technical College where he enrolled to be a chef offered nothing less than the promise of a new beginning. A former gang member, the thirty-year-old Sosa decided to make a new start away from la Vida Loca after being the victim of a drive-by shooting and later starting a family.
These three stories-featured in the Learning Matters documentary “Discounted Dreams” – only hint at the range of challenges that the nation’s community colleges, sometimes called the stepchild of American higher education, must overcome for their 6.6 million students to realize their varied dreams.
And as the documentary funded by the Hewlett Foundation makes clear, for the nation’s approximately 1,200 public community colleges to fulfill their promise, they first will have to solve their own formidable problems. Compounding the difficulty of serving student bodies of wildly diverse needs, they simply have not been given the resources to succeed in the many tasks they are asked to do.
Key among their problems are funding formulas based on enrollment numbers rather than on the success of those enrolled; a chronic shortage of classes that forces students like Dave Rynders to spend six years completing a two-year program; and a shortage of counselors that leaves those students least able to navigate graduation and transfer requirements with the least help doing so.
No wonder that the documentary, produced by Learning Matters and veteran education journalist John Merrow and broadcast on PBS, is subtitled “High Hopes and Harsh Realities at America’s Community Colleges.”
“It’s a shocker how few incentives there are to succeed, particularly in remedial programs,” said Merrow after visiting community colleges nationwide to research the documentary. “That has to change.”
In California, the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program is working to do exactly that, making grants on a host of fronts to improve the success rate of students, particularly those who are underprepared for college work, as well as funding efforts to improve the finance and affordability policies of the state. “The stakes for California reach far beyond the students themselves,” says Pamela Burdman, the Education Program Officer overseeing Hewlett’s community college work. “The health of the California economy hangs in the balance.”
She cites the Public Policy Institute of California’s “CA 2025,” a study of the future of the California economy, which notes that by the year 2020, almost 40 percent of the state’s jobs will require a college degree and another 36 percent will need “some college,” either an associate’s degree or certificate. “One of the most threatening trends,” the authors of this Hewlett-funded study wrote, “is the potential mismatch between the education requirements of the new economy and the amount of education its future population is likely to have.”
A failure to increase overall education levels could spell dire consequences for the state, including economic stagnation, increased need for social services and prisons, decreased civic participation, and growing inequality, Burdman says.
Moreover, although an undereducated workforce is a growing problem nationally, California’s demographics make the stakes higher for this state than for any other. According to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a shortage of college educated workers could cause a greater loss in per capita income in California than in any of the other forty-nine states.
With low rates both for students graduating from high school and for high school graduates going directly to college, California ranks fifth from the bottom nationally in students’ chance of attending college by the age of nineteen and is not on track to meet the state’s needs for educated workers.
According to another Hewlett-funded study, “Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in the California Community Colleges,” only about 25 percent of students seeking a credential succeed in either transferring to a four-year institution or earning an associate’s degree or certificate within six years.
Yet the state’s community colleges are by far the largest part of California’s post-secondary public education, serving 2 million students a year-far more than the 335,000 who attend a California State University or the 160,000 enrolled at a University of California campus annually. The students they serve are more likely to be from low-income, minority, or immigrant communities, with far larger numbers of them attending part time than do students at four-year universities.
In part, Burdman says, California’s community colleges are captive of polices that do not encourage their students’ success. They have lower-than-average state funding and among the lowest tuition levels in the country, which translates into a shortage of space in high-demand courses and high counselor-to-student ratios.
“The emphasis has been on encouraging broad access to education,” says Burdman, “but an equal emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that students succeed.” The Foundation’s Education Program has embarked upon two broad approaches to help.
The first is to fund research and demonstration projects designed to improve remedial instruction for underprepared students, particularly in the areas of basic math and English. One example of this is the Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in Community Colleges project, which is working at eleven community colleges in partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching to identify successful teaching methods.
The second approach is to encourage changes in policies that impede success both at the state level and at individual institutions.
This work supports a wide range of research-from an analysis by MPR Associates of successful patterns for transfer to four-year universities, to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education of ways to align state funding, student fees, and financial aid to improve affordability of community colleges without reducing resources.
The Foundation also is helping support replication of an innovative bridge curriculum developed at Cabrillo College in California that has shown unusual success.
“The complexity of the issues means that there is no simple fix,” notes Burdman. “But there is tremendous will both within the community colleges and within the policy community to bring knowledge and resources to bear for the benefit of the students, the colleges, and especially, California.”
As for Jennica Dinnell and Jose Sosa, two of the students featured in “Discounted Dreams,” they give reason for hope. Dinnell made her transfer to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Sosa finished his culinary arts program, moved his family away from their gang-riddled home in South Central Los Angeles, and found employment as a chef in Southern California.
Carpenter Dave Rynders continues to wait for the classes he needs to complete his training to become a nurse.
Learning Matters documentary “Discounted Dreams,” on YouTube – https://youtu.be/XQ-JVf1nvQ8 Script in PDF – http://learningmatters.tv/transcripts/documentary/discounted_dreams.pdf
To download the complete text of “Rules of the Game,” by researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento, visit: http://www.hawaii.edu/offices/cc/docs/goal_a/Rules%20of%20the%20Game%20Analysis%20of%20Cal%20CC%20Policies%20FINAL.pdf