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2010 December 27 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: 2010, Year in Review

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Colleges in 2010 were under pressure to boost graduation rates.

C OV E R   S T O R Y

2010: Year in Review

By Paul Bradley

If 2009 was the year community colleges stepped into the national spotlight, then 2010 was the year they were put under the microscope.

In an era when the public and policy makers are demanding accountability, transparency and results from education at all levels, community colleges are trying to strike a delicate balance between access and success: keeping their doors open to all, while at the same time improving their graduation and retention rates.

College leaders were being urged to have some difficult conversations about their dismal graduation rates and take responsibility not only for the admission of their students, but also for their success. To do that, community colleges were mining data and developing programs on what they found.

But no sector was under closer scrutiny than for-profit colleges. As the recession deepened and the economy changed, sending droves of people back to classrooms, no one benefited more than the proprietary schools. According to a report by the Education Trust, for-profits boosted enrollments by 236 percent over the decade from 1998-99 through 2008-09, far outpacing the growth in public and private nonprofit institutions.

And while for-profits enroll about 12 percent of all college students, they enroll 24 percent of all Pell Grant recipients, using aggressive recruiting tactics to target low-income students.

As the year closed, the colleges were being challenged for their aggressive recruiting of veterans and soldiers. The Post 9/11 GI Bill of 2008 greatly increased educational benefits available to active duty personnel and veterans, and for-profit colleges are capturing an outsized portion of the new money.

The for-profit colleges countered that their institutions provide a valuable educational alternative to thousands of non-traditional students, particularly working adults.

Even federal education officials concede that the colleges are a key piece of the education and skill development puzzle. The colleges are credited with adapting to market needs more quickly than traditional institutions. While more traditional colleges and universities often help students gain broad background in the liberal arts, the for-profit sector — or career colleges, as they prefer to be called —serve people who are committed to a specific occupational goal and seek the most direct route to reaching it, advocates say.

The colleges also note that most career colleges pay taxes and receive no direct financial support from state governments, unlike not-for-profit public institutions that receive state tax support or not-for-profit private colleges that pay no taxes.

But the colleges do collect close to 90 percent of their income through the the federal student aid program. As the amount of cash the colleges are collecting has grown, so has the scrutiny on them.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a leading critic of the for-profit colleges, said they focus too much on profits and not enough on educational outcomes. He said investment firms’ focus on short-term gains interferes with the educational goals of for-profit colleges.

For all those reasons, the new focus on for-profit colleges tops Community College Week’s list of the Top Ten Community College stories of 2010. With the economic recovery struggling to gain steam, and demand for higher education on the rise, it’s certain to be an ongoing story in 2011.

Under the Microscope:
Calls for College Accountability Grow

1: Crackdown on For-Profit Colleges

They are the fastest-growing sector of higher education, experiencing rapid growth as the tepid economy drives people back to the classroom. They are open-admission institutions specializing in helping non-traditional students. For-profit colleges — the rich cousins of the nation’s community colleges, and their main competitor — now enroll about 2.2 million students overall. The sector is also uniquely positioned to benefit from federal student aid programs. In 2010, that distinction made for-profit colleges the focus of intense scrutiny from the federal government. Last August, in front of a Senate committee, the General Accounting Office released a scathing report which described undercover investigators’ visits to 15 for-profit college campuses, where they posed as prospective students and used hidden cameras to record interactions with admissions representatives. The report painted a picture of institutions more interested in profits than academics. A subsequent report from the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said for-profit college companies are taking in enormous amounts of federal student aid money through the new GI Bill, with questionable returns. The reports came as the U.S. Education Department crafted new rules to rein in for-profit colleges, requiring them to demonstrate that their courses of study lead to “gainful employment” for students. That led to an epic struggle in the corridors of power in Washington that is expected to spill into 2011.

2: Obama Initiative Scrapped

In July 2009, community college leaders around the country were elated with the announcement of the American Graduation Initiative — a proposal aimed at boosting the number of college graduates and training workers for emerging fields. Announced amid great fanfare on the campus of Macomb Community College in Michigan, the AGI promised $12 billion in federal funding over the next decade to community colleges. But as politicians in Washington fought a partisan war over the country’s health care system, the AGI became a casualty. When Senate leaders decided to pass the health care bill through a parliamentary maneuver called budget reconciliation, the AGI was axed. It was a bitter pill to swallow for community college leaders, many of whom believed the AGI meant they had finally shed their role as the neglected stepchild of federal education policy. Already being squeezed between skyrocketing enrollments and dwindling state and local funding, and being called upon to improve their poor graduation rates, colleges saw the AGI as a once-in-a-life opportunity to transform the nation’s two-year institutions. Though Obama has promised more support for community colleges, the change in power in Congress, the prospects for more funding appears bleak.

3: A Summit at the White House

Some people called it a consolation prize for the demise of the AGI: a White House Community College Summit. For the nation’s community colleges, the summit was their long-awaited day in the sun. Two-year colleges were explicitly recognized at the highest levels of government as a linchpin of American prosperity. But despite the enthusiastic show of support from the Obama administration, the summit was more spin than substance. It offered scant hope that the colleges’ most immediate and pressing problem — shrinking resources at a time of skyrocketing enrollment — will be addressed anytime soon. As for the session itself, about 150 college presidents, students and business leaders traveled to Washington for a gathering in the ornate East Room. College leaders heard their institutions praised as places where the path to the American dream begins for thousands of people. Attendees later broke up into smaller groups to discuss many of the challenges that have long been bedeviling colleges, such as how to improve retention and graduation rates. The proposed solutions broke little ground not already plowed by leaders of the community college sector. The college leaders returned to their campuses feeling newly appreciated, but not counting on much help from the federal government.

4: Completion Agenda Gains Traction

From the bully pulpit of the White House to leading philanthropists, community colleges were being called upon to make a historic shift. Colleges historically have been defined by their open-access mission. But in 2010, colleges were charged with a new mission: not only opening their doors, but also ensuring that students graduate or otherwise earn a credential. Colleges acknowledged that much work remains to be done. According to the most recent federal data, just 22 percent of first-time, full-time students in community college graduate within three years. Though President Obama has been one of the loudest voices urging college completion, the real work is being done in the states. The Community College League of California, for example, announced that it wants the state’s two-year institutions to award one million more certificates and degrees by 2020. The Maryland Association of Community Colleges has pledged to increase the number of community college graduates annually from about 11,200 this past academic year to more than 18,600 in the 2024-25 academic year. When a survey conducted by the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center this year asked state community college directors whether “Increased attention to state-level student success/degree completion is being paid in my state," 46 of 50 responses either “agreed” or “strongly agreed.”

5: The Squeeze On Colleges Tightens

In 2010, community colleges saw the continuation of dual trends. As community college enrollments climbed to record levels, states were cutting their budgets, forcing the institutions to turn away thousands of students. In California, home to one of every four community college students, spending was cut by 8 percent in 2010, forcing the colleges to turn away an estimated 140,000 students. In Maine, the waiting list for admission to nursing programs is two years. In all, 35 states cut higher education spending in 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. For policy makers, the squeeze is worrisome, coming at a time when the country has fallen behind other nations in some key measures of educational attainment. While college leaders say their institutions need more financial support, neither lawmakers nor taxpayers have shown much appetite for increasing spending on community colleges. A recent Associated Press poll showed that while 79 percent of Americans believe that the economy would improve if everyone has at least a two-year college degree, only 42 percent approved of tax increases to reach that goal. Policy makers are being challenged to strike a balance between improving education while not overburdening taxpayers at a time of economic weakness.

6: Promise of The Green Economy

As oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon spewed into the Gulf of Mexico and fouled wetlands along the Louisiana coastline, the attention of many Americans turned to its energy future — specifically renewable energy resources, such as solar energy and wind power. Oregon’s Lane Community College found itself at the forefront of the green energy movement. In 2010, Lane made its award-winning curriculum available to colleges across the country through distance learning. But even as colleges expanded their green energy programs, questions persisted about whether the reality of green energy jobs is falling short of its promise, particularly for low-income people. A report issued this year by the Workforce Strategy Center stated it plainly: “Identifying green energy jobs for individuals with entry-level skills has been a significant problem. In fact, the projections for green growth have not yet translated into a sizable number of jobs. As of now, there also appears to be only marginal demand within green energy sectors for lower-skilled workers. Moreover, green energy sector credentials and competencies are inconsistent across the industry and among employers.” Efforts afoot to create national standards for green-energy workers and certifications should help workers match their educations and skills with jobs available in the green technology sector.

7: More Federal Aid for Students

As rising costs and stagnant wages threatened to place college education out of the reach of all but an elite few, President Obama signed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act into law on March 30, 2010. The legislation included a series of reforms, including one that eliminated the middleman role of banks in the federal student loan program. It directed $36 billion over ten years to increase the maximum annual Pell Grant scholarship to $5,550 in 2010 and to $5,975 by 2017. The legislation also included an investment of $13.5 billion to fund a shortfall in the Pell Grant scholarship program. The law also invests $750 million to bolster college access and completion support for students. It also helps students burdened by large amounts of debt by making federal loans more affordable for borrowers. Under the law, borrowers can cap their monthly federal student loan payments at 15 percent of their discretionary income. These new provisions would lower this monthly cap to just 10 percent for new borrowers after 2014. Included in the law is a provision that directs $2 billion in a competitive grant program for community colleges to develop and improve educational or career training programs.

8: A Call to Action on Shared Goals

The American Graduation Initiative was in ruins, but that did not deter the Obama administration officials from pushing the initiative’s goals or community college leaders from endorsing them. In an unprecedented action, the leaders of six leading community college organizations signed a document pledging to boost completion rates at their institutions by 50 percent by the year 2020. Signatories included the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Community College Trustees, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organization Development and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. The shared pledge asks community college leaders, faculty and staff “to identify ways to help students understand the added value of degrees and certifications, and to help them progress toward their goals.” Prior to the signing of the pledge at the AACC convention in Seattle, U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter said AGI’s overarching goals are unchanged, even without the $12 billion originally promised by the initiative. “We are solely, deeply and personally committed to what President Obama has set for us to achieve,” she said. “Everything we are doing in the Department of Education is aimed at achieving this goal.”

9: Seeking Better Metrics

Work continued in 2010 on the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, an effort to devise measures, outcomes and processes specific to community colleges. Under the VFA — which in 2011 will progress to pilot projects at 40 institutions — colleges will be able to compare their student progress and completion data against peers. More importantly, they will be able provide critical information on the colleges to policy leaders, parents, students and the public. The effort was undertaken amid a growing consensus that college leaders need to do a better job of educating the public about precisely what it is that community colleges do. An absence of commonly accepted performance measures, leaders believe, has led to misunderstandings about the work and effectiveness of community colleges. In one sense, the VFA reflects the frustrations of community college leaders with the criticism that has been directed their way for poor graduation and completion rates. Leaders long have griped that such measures fail to account for the full breadth of the work being done at community colleges. The effort also represents something of a pre-emptive strike. The growing interest in community colleges is sure to bring with it calls for more accountability, so it makes sense for colleges to devise a system rather than have one imposed on them.

10: Foundations Lend Their Support

Time was the national foundations would rarely touch community colleges. But those days are gone. In 2010, foundations were using their riches to influence education policy as never before. In the community college sector, the unquestioned leaders of this movement are the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Lumina spends $50 million a year to improve college completion rates. Its goal is to have 60 percent of Americans hold a postsecondary degree by 2025. The foundation is also expanding its efforts to build consensus on specific policy measures and will draft model policies for states, including legislation. The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, deepened its involvement in community colleges through two major initiatives: Completion by Design, a $34.8 million, five-year competitive grant program to improve completion rates of community college students by building on proven, existing practices; and the $20 million Next Generations Learning Challenge, an initiative which aims to help dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States through the use of technology. The overarching goal is to change the way that institutions interact with today’s students. The foundation will study the progress at these colleges and help replicate the best practices at more schools.

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