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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 March 21 - 12:00 am

Innovations Conference Held Amid ‘New Normal’ for Community Colleges

SAN DIEGO — Inside the cavernous Sapphire Ballroom at the Hilton Bayside San Diego, better than 1,500 people filed toward their seats to the strains of “It Never Rains in Southern California,” the 1972 hit song about dislocation and disillusionment.

 “It never rains in California,” went the lyrics as the 2011 Innovations Conference of the League for Innovation in the Community College kicked off. “But girl don’t they warn ya. It pours, man it pours.”

Indeed it does. As community college leaders and faculty gathered for Innovations 2011 —  dedicated to “improving student and organizational learning through innovation, experimentation and institutional transformation” — storm clouds were gathering in the form of factors much more somber: shrinking governmental support, climbing enrollments and ever-shifting expectations.

Welcome to the “new normal” for community colleges, and you’d better get used to it.

“We are at a key moment,” said Allan Golston, president of domestic programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and one of the featured speakers. “Better attainment is needed, but resources are constrained.”

“We have to get smarter on cost-effectiveness,” he added. The financial situation confronting community colleges “is not going to get better.”

A few recent items in the news only reinforce the point that colleges are going through a period of drastic change.

 In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed cutting state support for the Maricopa Community College District by 75 percent, and college officials are looking to tuition increases to make the difference.

 In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed trimming state spending on community colleges by $400 million on top of cuts imposed for the past three years. Fee increases are a near certainty as officials move to shift more costs to students.

 In Texas, the House budget plan would close four community colleges altogether. The Senate plan keeps the colleges up, but big higher education spending cuts are on the way.

One of the tongue-in-cheek questions posed at the conference was: “Who has it worse, California or Texas?”

All of this comes at a time when colleges are being pressed to boost graduation rates and make a substantial contribution to improving the nation’s sluggish economy through workforce development initiatives.

Attendees were told that expectations of colleges have never been higher. While the completion agenda that emerged over the last several years remains paramount, no longer is earning a degree or a certificate enough. Today, if such a credential is to be considered worthwhile, it must lead to a job.

The Gates Foundation, a major benefactor of community colleges and a leading advocate of reform, has its own term for a community college credential: “post-secondary completion with labor market value.”

“It’s all about job placement,” Golston said. “A certificate or degree has no value unless it allows you to earn a living.”

The Gates Foundation has been a leading proponent of altering community college funding formulas to account for student completion rates and academic progress. But the foundation remains mindful of the potential damage that can be done in raising the bar — it could undermine, or even undo, the open access mission that defines community colleges.

After all, colleges in search of better completion rates could merely craft academic requirements for admission.

“The gains we have made on access could be lost,” Golston said. “We have to sustain those.”

Abandoning the open access mission would have grave implications for groups that rely on community colleges. Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based advocacy group, said 60 percent of Latinos enrolled in college are in community colleges.

But she also complained that Hispanic students for too long have been an afterthought among higher education policy leaders.

“There is still a generalized mindset that Latinos are off to the side,” she said.

This is mistake, Brown said, and is a serious misuse of the human capital that the population represents. Demographic trends suggest that Hispanics students, by their sheer numbers alone, will be critical to the country’s economic fate.

Between 1980 and 2009, for example, the number of Latino residents grew from 14.6 million to 48.4 million. In 2009, the median age of Latinos was 27, compared to 41 for whites. By the year 2025, one-quarter of all college students will be Latino, Brown said.

Yet wide educational disparities persist. Only 7 percent of Latinos ages 18 to 24 have an associate degree or higher compared to 9 percent of African Americans, 16 percent of whites and 25 percent of Asians.

Brown said the country has lived too long accepting such disparities.

“It is one we have lived with comfortably for so long, and that is deeply disturbing,” she said. “The pathway to reach this population is wide open, but we don’t see the commitment. This is the time for higher education to speak up.”  

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