Let’s Fix the Community Colleges

The dysfunction in the American educational system–from the continuing decline in the elementary and secondary schools to the “bubble” in post-secondary education–is growing more obvious every day.

However, the public often overlooks the massive community college (“CC”) system. Nationally, nearly a third–fully 30%–of all post-secondary students are in community colleges. (In California alone, over two million students attend the 100-campus community college system).

CCs have the vital role of promoting three major educational social
goods. CCs are supposed to offer remedial education for those who never
mastered the K-12 curriculum, to provide vocational and technical
training for those who want to work in high-skill trades, and to provide
lower division level general education classes for those who want to
transfer into a regular four-year college.

But an April report by Mark Schneider and Lu Michelle Yin for the American Enterprise Institute documents some real deficiencies in the nation’s CC system. Specifically, Schneider and Yin report that nationwide, only about 25% of CC students graduate within three years, and about 400 CCs have graduation rates below 15%.

Given the major role that CCs play in American higher education, this large drop-out rate imposes major costs on society. The authors’ main contribution is to quantify those costs empirically, and the results are stunning.

The federal government views an associate of arts (AA) degree as taking 3 years of full-time work. So the most recent cohort of full-time CC students for which data is available is the 2006 entering class. In that group, over 320,000 have not graduated. Schneider and Yin investigate the economic gains of just cutting the drop-out rate in half. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the American economy needs about 300,000 more workers with AA degrees than are currently produced, this approach seems reasonable, even conservative.

Cutting the Drop-Out Rate in Half

The authors calculate that if the CC drop-out rate were merely halved, the cohort of students would have earned $1.4 billion more in 2010 than it did. The federal government would have received an additional $200 million in income taxes and the collective state income tax revenues would have been $60 million greater.

Over the students’ working lives, this works out to their earning collectively $30 billion more, with the federal government collecting $4 billion and the states $1.3 million more.

If anything, this estimate of increased tax revenue is low, since it is based only on income taxes. But the higher wages of AA-credentialed workers would also result in more sales, property, and inheritance taxes. And since many of these highly trained workers start businesses, cutting their drop-out rate would generate more corporate revenues.

Schneider and Yin offer a number of sage suggestions for increasing the CC graduation rate These include making remediation programs more efficient and restructuring the class scheduling so that students can more reliably plan their schedules. Also (from Schneider’s other work) they mention offering more web-based learning, “competency based learning” (where students can move ahead as they master the material, not according to a set schedule), and adopting some practices prevalent in for-profit CCs (whose graduation rate is nearly triple that for public CCs).

I think that the author’s recommendations are good, but hardly sufficient to solve the CC graduation problem. Let me add two others, one modest, one more radical.

First, as I have suggested elsewhere, CCs should look at progressive tuition pricing based upon prior units attempted. The problem here is that far too many CC students enroll in classes and then drop out when any appreciable work is demanded of them. In the years I spent teaching philosophy to CC students, it was not unusual to start a logic class with 35 students and wind up with fewer than 10, sometimes (depending upon the CC) only 3. CCs often encourage this by allowing students to drop out up to the final two weeks of the course.

Why Not School Choice?

So CCs should charge more for those students who have failed to complete many prior courses. For example, for the first 60 units the student takes (normally, 60 units is the total unit requirement for an AA degree), charge $20 per unit (the current price in California). For the next 30 units attempted, charge (say) $50 per unit. That is still much lower than tuition at the California State University system (and much less than the University of California system), but would incentivize students to try to complete the courses in which they enrolled. For 91 to 120 units, raise the tuition to $100 per unit, and for 121 units and up, make it $200 per unit (roughly what a full-time UC student pays).

More radically, I suggest that we introduce school choice for the public CCs. Offer students vouchers equivalent to the average expended by state and local governments for public CCs, and let students use them either at their local public CCs or at private ones. At the least, allow charter CCs to start up in CC districts that have high drop-out rates.

However, I will end on a cautionary note. Any college or university is at best a value-adding enterprise. That is, any college takes students presumed to have a solid basic education, and then adds to their stores of knowledge a lot of new material.

But our primary and secondary schools are too often failing miserably in their task of providing that basic education. For instance, the most recent ACT scores reveal that less than one fourth of graduating secondary students who intend to go to college are actually college-ready in reading, writing, math and science. This forces colleges to offer more remediation than they should have to, and accordingly limits the new knowledge they can add while making retention harder. This is why even four-year colleges–which get the best students–graduate fewer than 60% of their students.

In truth, poorly prepared students are inherently hard to retain in college, CC or four year. And that problem is one the colleges cannot solve.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Fix the Community Colleges

  1. It is worth noting that students transferring to four year schools often do not bother with an AA. Also, many CA cc’s only track transfers to UC and CSU, causing transfers to private schools and out of state schools to disappear from the data.

  2. A few critiques:
    1) Some students enrolled at a CC might be taking a class or two over summers while they are home from their 4 year college. Counting these would dilute the number as they are not there to earn a AA.
    2) Similarly some students may take some “core” courses for 1 year and then transfer to a 4 year college.
    3) Some students may be there just to take a few courses to earn a promotion at work even if they do not need the AA.
    4) Similar to #1, I have a sister-in-law that took a basic class or 2 at a CC that she did not take at a 4 year college.
    I think the CC system is great (I was a college administrator at a CC at one point in my life–I was also a college administrator at a couple of 4 year colleges).
    Something that is often missed when recommending a CC is the likelihood of getting an instructor with a PhD to teach core courses. PhDs at CC’s are the ones who often like to teach and have no interest in research and chasing grants while pawning off the courses on TAs.

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