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2011 December 26 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: 2011, Year in Review

Photo by Patrice Gilbert/courtesy Aspen Institute

Valencia College President Sandy Shugart accepts congratulations as Johsua Wyner of the Aspen Institute and Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding look on.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Year in Review:
Closing the Curtains On 2011
By Paul Bradley

Community college leaders generally eschew and resist all manner of rankings, believing their institutions are simply too diverse, their missions too different, to lend themselves to a qualitative analysis.

But voices of dissent were few and far between when the Aspen Institute embarked on a yearlong quest to identify the nation’s top colleges and reward them with a total of $1 million for their exemplary work. Community college experts pored over applications, analyzed reams of data and conducted site visits. A prize jury of former elected officials, education experts and civil rights advocates reviewed the data and selected the winners.

When the analysis was done, Valencia College, which educates more than 50,000 students a year in Orlando, Fla., won the top prize and $600,000. Four other colleges were named “finalists with distinction”: Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.); Miami Dade College (Fla.); Walla Walla Community College (Wash.); West Kentucky Community & Technical College (Ky.).

More than heaping praise on community colleges, the awards served notice that open-access community colleges, too, can achieve excellence and distinction just like four-year universities. It was a chance for colleges of all stripes to bask in the national spotlight.

Indeed, the colleges that were honored are as diverse as the sector itself: Lake Tech, for example, is a college of just 1,400 students with a minority student enrollment of just 2 percent; Miami Dade, is the nation’s largest public college, with nearly 100,000 students, 87 percent of whom are members of underrepresented minority groups.

Yet all of the schools have managed to exceed national averages on graduation rates, transfers to four-year colleges, job placements and learning and equity outcomes. They are training the next generation of nurses, laser technicians, teachers and small business owners. They are demonstrating how a combination of actions can improve student success, the institute said.

For elevating the discussion of community colleges from access to success, the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence tops Community College Week’s list of the Top Ten Community College Stories of 2011.

Striving for Excellence, Elevating the Discussion

1. Valencia Named Nation’s Top College

Academic excellence and achievement are terms that most observers never apply to workhorse community colleges, reserving it for elite institutions defined by how many applicants they exclude and how much tuition they can charge. In 2011, the Aspen Institute, through its first-ever Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, took strides to change that. The institute named Valenica College as the winner of the prize, making it, in effect, the top community college in the country. The award is intended to help institutions understand how to improve outcomes for the 7 million students — nearly half of all undergraduates in post-secondary education — working toward degrees and certificates in community colleges. “Valencia College is a shining example of what really matters in community colleges, and that’s helping students succeed through learning, graduating and getting good jobs,” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The idea for the award grew out of last year’s White House community college summit. Valencia was selected from a field of entrants that originally numbered 120 and was narrowed to 10 finalists. That number then was winnowed to five finalists, including Valencia. The competing colleges were judged on four criteria: completion outcomes, including the awarding associate degrees, one-year certificates and transfer to four-year schools; labor market outcomes, including institutional practices that lead to high rates of employment earning for graduates; learning outcomes, including institutional practices that result in strong levels of student learning both within programs and college-wide; and equitable outcomes, including practices that ensure access and success for African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

2. Solving the Great Jobs Mismatch

It is the question that puzzles community colleges, employers and workforce development officials around the country: How can an economy that has 14 million unemployed people have so many jobs that seemingly can’t be filled? Call it the great jobs mismatch, the persistent and frustrating gap between idle workers and open jobs. The mismatch is hampering the economic recovery and severely impacting those without jobs. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the problem is rooted in the fact that many community colleges are not well-connected enough to their local communities to meet emerging job demands. To address the problem, the federal government announced $2 billion in grants to expand capacity and job-training at community colleges. The Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training Initiative will distribute $500 million in grants to 49 community colleges and community college consortia to provide training in high-growth fields such as health care, the environment, transportation and advanced manufacturing. “This initiative will connect community colleges and businesses that are ready to hire but need a better-trained workforce,” said Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter. Funding comes from $2 billion included in the health care legislation approved by Congress. Another $1.5 million in grants will come in future years. Meanwhile, Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based think tank and education advocacy group, launched an initiative that will mine, aggregate and analyze real-time job market data available on the World Wide Web data and identify important employment trends. JFF has enlisted ten community colleges into a “Credentials That Work” network and given the schools the technological tools to help them identify local labor trends and adjust their curricula accordingly. If successful, it is hoped that the technology can be used at colleges around the country, helping them better align curricula with local labor markets.

3. Budget Woes Hobble College Agenda

In 2011, community college completion agenda collided with harsh reality of shrinking budgets, overcrowded campuses and the absence of a lack of long-term financial plan to boost the number of Americans who hold degrees or certificates. A survey of state community college directors found that nine of 10 state community college chiefs say their state has no long-term plan to finance capital or operating budgets tied to the completion agenda. Conducted by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, the survey found that leaders believe deep and continuing budget cuts at public-access colleges at all levels threaten to undermine progress in achieving the completion agenda.“It seems like it will be almost an impossible task to achieve the completion agenda” in light of a continuing budget crisis, said study co-author Janice N. Friedel of the University of Iowa. The study surveyed 51 members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges. It found just 4 of 51 respondents indicate a long-term plan exists to fund operating budgets needed to increase numbers of adults with college degrees/certificates; just 3 of 51 indicate a long-term plan exists to fund capital budgets needed to increase numbers of adults with degrees and certificates. President Obama has called for the United States to regain its now-lost global lead in college completion by 2020, but long term-financial restraints could put that goal out of reach, the report says. Nowhere was the budget squeeze worse than in California. The latest round of budget cuts there will cost $102 million, for a total loss this year of $502 million from the system’s $5.9 billion budget. “Colleges are at a breaking point now,” said Chancellor Jack Scott of the community college system, predicting more crowded classrooms and layoffs of adjunct faculty.

4. Uneven Progress on Completion Goal

On at least one thing, most politicians and policy makers seemed to agree in 2011: the nation will not prosper unless it produces more college graduates. First articulated by President Obama in 2009, the college completion movement continued to gather momentum in 2011. But progress continued to lag. A campaign led by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center and the National Conference of State Legislatures announced an ambitious goal at the outset of 2011: to increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate degree or higher to 55 percent by 2025, up from 41.6 percent in 2008. That would make the country the world leader in educational attainment. Currently, only the District of Columbia meets the 55 percent benchmark; Massachusetts was the top state with 53.9 percent. This month, the College Board issued a year-end report which said progress has been uneven. “While the nation struggles to strengthen the economy, the educational capacity of our country continues to decline,” the report said. “As we continue to decline in global competitiveness, our economic strength also continues to weaken. In order to increase our economic position in the world, it is important that we turn around this important trend.” A closer look at the figures shows some disturbing trends rooted in the impending retirements of baby boomers. In 2008, the United States ranked fifth in the world in educational attainment among 25- to 64-year-olds; third in post-secondary attainment among 55- to 64-year-olds; and 12th among citizens between ages 25 to 34.There have been some signs of progress. Three-year graduation rates for full-time students seeking associate degrees is on the rise; 31 states now have formal alignments between high school outcomes and college expectations; fewer students are dropping out of school, the College Board report said. The report concluded that “if the United States is to regain its status as the leader in educational attainment….it must make an investment in higher education access, admission and success for all students.”

5. Pell Grants Targeted In Congress

Skyrocketing levels of student debt and the long-term harm being inflicted on recent graduates commanded considerable media attention in 2011. Nearly overlooked was what could happen to community college students who finance their education without borrowing, but rely on Pell Grants to finance their educations. Founded as a way to boost college enrollment by contributing toward the tuition and fees of low-incomestudents, Pell Grants came under threat in 2011 on two fronts amid the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C. First, the failure of the congressional Super Committee tasked with finding federal budget cuts means $1.2 trillion in automatic discretionary spending cuts — including the Pell Grant program — have been triggered over the nextdecade. Second, congressional negotiators approved cutting Pell Grant funding by $11 billion over 10 years in ways that would impact community college students. Many of the cuts would come from reducing the amount of income a student can keep to cover minimal living expenses before being expected to contribute to college costs. By reducing that figure, many working students will become ineligible for the Pell Grant or have their grant size reduced. Two other aspects of the law would disproportionately affect community college students: students who enroll less than half-time and students without a high school diploma or GED would become ineligible; and the lifetime eligibility for Pell Grants would be reduced from nine to six years. This proposal affects community college students who take remedial courses and take longer to complete their studies. Community college advocates argue that slashing Pell Grants would lower college completion rates at a time when the country is trying to increase the number of degree-holders.

6. New Measures of College Success Advance

Initiatives advanced on two separate but related fronts to better measure community college outcomes by establishing new metrics long sought by college leaders. First, a federal committee concluded more than a year of study by urging that the Education Department change how it tracks and evaluates graduation rates and other measures of success for community college students. Most significantly, the new measures would create a new “graduation and transfer” rate that includes both students who graduate from a two-year college as well as those who did not earn a credential but go on to a four-year institution. Community college leaders have long argued that counting only those students who earn a degree gave a distorted picture of the colleges and makes them seem less successful than they truly are. Then, after 18 months of research, analysis and testing, the American Association of Community Colleges launched a first-ever custom framework to measure how 2-year colleges perform in serving their more than 13 million students. The Voluntary Framework of Accountability, along with an accompanying manual, gives community colleges new measures to be used in reporting to the public and policymakers: specific metrics addressing student progress and achievement, implementation of career and technical education programs (credit and noncredit) and transparency in reporting outcomes. The AACC said the release of the metrics manual will give each community college a roadmap to greater and more rigorous accountability.

7. Former GIs March to College Campuses

Two years after President Obama signed the Post 9-11 GI Bill into law, its effect was growing on community college campuses. The bill virtually eliminates financial constraints for veterans choosing a place to further their education. In 2011, there were more than 800,000 GI Bill beneficiaries across the country, an increase of 40 percent over the year before. Many of the returning veterans are choosing community colleges to further their education. In California, for example, home of the country’s largest community college system, 75 percent of veterans using GI Bill benefits to pay for their education are enrolled in community college. And as the nation draws down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, community colleges are gearing up for a fresh wave of new students, some with distinctive needs. In addition, a law which took effect in October greatly expands the reach of the GI Bill; money for tuition, books and housing stipends formerly were good only at colleges and universities. But now the GI Bill covers institutions like vocational and technical schools and colleges that offer licensing and certificate programs – a specialty of community colleges. For veterans struggling with high unemployment, the new rules offer another path to job training programs. For community colleges, they present another challenge in determining the needs and wants of veterans and responding to those desires. While the federal government does not require colleges to have veteran coordinators of programs, many colleges are taking the initiative to ease the transition from military to civilian life for student veterans. College officials say they must help veterans while at the same time remaining focused on their core academic mission. Many colleges are enlisting the veterans themselves to identify and develop programs to help them.

8. Crackdown on For-Profits Continues

In the early days of the recession, enrollment at for-profit colleges soared, buoyed by heavy advertising and aggressive recruiting aimed at suddenly jobless people in need of new skills and a trickle of federal student aid that became a torrent. But the boom times are over, due to a federal crackdown on bad actors in the for-profit sector and an image tarnished by the perception that the institutions are more interested in filling seats and collecting federal money than they are in education. According to Bloomberg News, new-student enrollments have plunged — in some cases by more than 45 percent — in recent months as companies pulled back on aggressive recruiting practices amid growing criticism over high student-loan default rates. In addition, many students are questioning degrees that can cost much more than what’s available at community colleges. Still, nearly 2 million students attend for-profit colleges, about 12 percent of all college students. Blacks and Hispanics make up about half of the total enrollment. As enrollment has grown, however, so have charges that the schools provide degrees with little real value but leave students with crushing debt. The fact that some schools receive 90 percent of all revenue from federal student financial aid has only added to the criticism. In 2011, The Department of Education finalized rules blocking federal aid to a for-profit school if less than 35 percent of its former students are actively paying down their loans. The new rules, to take effect in July 2012, would effectively shut down for-profit programs that repeatedly fail to show that graduates are earning enough to repay student loans. Critics, however, complained that the rules were substantially watered down by a fierce lobbying campaign by for-profit colleges. Only a small number are likely to be affected by the new rules.

9. DREAM Act: States Strike Out On Their Own

In 2011, states around the country moved to fill the void by the inability of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants, in some cases, to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and put them on a path to citizenship. (DREAM Act is an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.) Several states, including Connecticut, Maryland and California, passed their own versions of the DREAM Act in 2011. Others might soon follow; in New York, the state Board of Regents in November announced a new bill called the Education Equity for DREAMers Act, which would allow undocumented students to apply for state college tuition grants of $5,000 for each school year. The effects of the state laws already are being felt. In Connecticut, for example, 138 illegal immigrants are studying at state colleges and universities, 110 of them at community colleges, according to media reports. The federal DREAM Act had bipartisan support but died due to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Under the proposal, illegal aliens of good moral character who graduate from US high schools, arrived in the country as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years would be eligible to pay reduced in-state tuition rates. Supporters believe the DREAM Act would have benefits by welcoming talented immigrants to the country. A UCLA study estimates that between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period based upon estimates ranging between 825,000 and 2.1 million potential DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining resident status through the legislation. Opponents of the DREAM Act argue that it encourages and rewards illegal immigration. Some foes say it is unfair to American-born and legal immigrant parents and children who must pay full tuition at state universities and colleges.

10. College Enrollment Boom Slows

What goes up must come down, goes the old adage, and for a growing number of community colleges across the country, that is what is beginning to happen to their enrollment figures. After years of record-breaking enrollments, in some places increases are beginning to slow. In some cases, enrollment is on the decline. In Illinois, for example, many community colleges reported a second consecutive year of enrollment declines, suggesting that enrollment might have peaked in 2009 during the depth of the Great Recession. In Michigan, community colleges are seeing enrollment declines of between 3 and 5 percent this year. Officials are quick to note that despite the recent declines, community college enrollment remains at historic highs, fueled by the prolonged economic downturn that sent unemployed workers to school in search of new careers and pushed increasing numbers of high school graduates to community colleges to avoid the skyrocketing costs of four-year schools. Sandy Baum, an economist and independent analyst for the College Board, doubted whether the enrollment declines signal an overall trend for community colleges. “I don’t think that what we are seeing is any kind of dramatic slowdown,” she said. “Anything that goes up that rapidly will slow down eventually. Enrollments at community colleges are still at historic highs.” Still, there are some reasons for the declining numbers some community colleges are experiencing, Baum said. Among them are the state of the economy and the extended duration of the economic downturn. “At the height of the recession, people who were on the margins and had lost their jobs were returning to school,” she said. “A lot of people who were on the fence jumped in. Now that fewer people are losing their jobs, people are saying ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ It’s not like people don’t want to go to college.”

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