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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 December 22 - 05:48 pm

Looking Back

2014: Year in Review

A year ago, when Community College Week was contemplating a list of the top ten community college-related stories for 2013, there was little doubt which one would be on top.

Massive open online courses -- MOOCs -- had dominated higher education headlines. The distance learning initiative was being hailed as something that would shake higher education to its very core, doing nothing less than democratizing American higher education. Everyone was talking about it.

A year later? Not so much. MOOCs appear nowhere on our list of top community college stories for 2014, and they seem to have become an afterthought, just the latest promising practice that didn’t pan out.

Most students who enrolled in MOOCs already had a college degree.

Only a tiny fraction of those enrolled completed the course. Most importantly,

experience showed that MOOCs did little to improve student performance in remedial math, a critical barrier for community college students.

Distance education remains a fast-growing segment of post-secondary education, but the rise and fall of MOOCs proved that march toward educational egalitarianism wasn’t going to be found in front of a computer screen.

This year’s list is topped by a much more tangible step toward opening the doors of higher education to all: the Tennessee Promise, that state’s initiative to provide two years of free community college tuition to all of the state’s recent high school graduates. In a state where only about 30 percent of residents have a college credential, it’s seen as a critical step toward boosting Tennessee’s economic competitiveness.

The state is now busy trying to assure that all those thousands of new students actually earn a college degree. Other states have taken notice. Both Oregon and Alabama are considering similar models. The results in

Tennessee will go a long way toward determining whether tuition-free community college is another passing fad or something that will truly make a college education accessible for hundreds of thousands of students.

Here is our top ten list for 2014:

1 FREE COLLEGE FOR ALL

All across Tennessee, from Nashville to Memphis, from Knoxville to Chattanooga, community colleges are preparing to welcome the high school Class of 2015 — the first class to qualify for free tuition at the state’s two-year institutions. Late last fall, recruiters fanned out across the state to tell students about the Tennessee Promise, the landmark state scholarship program that will remove a critical barrier to college access: cost. Under the program, students will receive funding to cover the cost of tuition at the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology not covered by other scholarships or grants. It’s part of Gov. Bill Haslem’s “Drive to 55” initiative to see 55 percent of Tennesseans hold college degrees, up from the current 33 percent. Across the state, about 56,000 of the roughly 62,000 high school seniors have applied for free tuition, though state officials don’t expect that many to participate in the program. The results have pleased state officials, but they know expanding access is not enough. So they have been rounding up volunteer mentors to help guide the students through their college experience, contemplating adding more student support classes and expanding first-year seminar classes. The real test will come in a year or two, the answer to be found in retention and graduation rates.

2 ELECTION 2014

Political pros and pundits alike like to quip that “elections have consequences.” That piece of conventional wisdom will be on vivid display in the nation’s Capitol in 2015. Though higher education commanded little attention from candidates in 2014, the election results could signal big changes for colleges of all types. The views of Republicans, now firmly in control of both houses of Congress, will be embodied in important legislation affecting governing higher education. The chief driver of change will be reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Though the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee released a draft of an HEA update earlier this year, that was under the leadership of soon-to-be-retiring Sen. Tom Harkin. The new chairman of the committee is Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has said he wants to start from scratch in overhauling the law. He has identified his first priority as simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, now at 108 questions. Alexander believes the form is so complicated it’s presenting a roadblock for students who want to attend college. Other priorities included updating the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) so it better reflects nontraditional students; streamlining the federal student aid program; and reforming the Pell Grant program.

3 GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT

Just days after the Obama administration announced long-awaited rules requiring career education programs to show that their graduates earn enough money to pay back their student loans, the for-profit college sector went to court to halt the new regulations. There is much at stake. Under the so-called “gainful employment” rules, programs that don’t pass the administration’s standard risk losing the ability to receive federal student aid. The administration estimated that about 1,400 programs serving 840,000 students, nearly all of them at for-profit colleges, won’t pass the test. For community colleges, the rules were a mixed bag. Officials were pleased that the final version of the rules omitted the program-level cohort default rate as a metric for the covered programs. Community college leaders contended that it would have unfairly judged programs based on the behavior of a tiny fraction of borrowers at community colleges. But community colleges were profoundly unhappy that the rules will impose new reporting and recordkeeping requirements. Among the data that will have to be collected: graduation rates for full-time and part-time students enrolled in career education programs; program withdrawal rates; the loan repayment rate for both program completers and noncompleters; and the median earnings of both completers and non-completers. The American Association of Community Colleges decried the rule as “make work” compliance which community colleges can’t afford.

4 A MUDDLE FOR-PROFIT

Not long ago for-profit colleges were on a roll, signing up record numbers of students and producing hundreds of billions in profits for shareholders. But in 2014, what once were the hottest items in higher education had cooled considerably. The for-profits –– which range from small beauty colleges and truck-driving schools to industry giant like the University of Phoenix — tripled their enrollment from 1991 to 2011, and recorded annual profits in the billions. But after years of criticism over high costs, questionable recruiting practices, poor outcomes and skyrocketing student debt, the for-profits have seen steep declines in their enrollments. Some have shut their doors. State regulators and the Obama administration have been cracking down on the institutions. Enrollment has fallen at all colleges and universities as the number of traditional-age college students falls and the economy improves, but the drop-off at the for-profit schools is steeper. It declined by more than 9 percent on 2013, and another 0.4 percent in 2014. The numbers have had consequences. The University of Phoenix closed half of its campuses and laid off hundreds of employees. Corinthian College was forced to shutter 12 campuses and sell 85 more. Some states, meanwhile, have stepped up their efforts to stop unscrupulous recruiting and deceptive advertising. But the for-profit sector seems poised for a comeback. Capitol Hill lobbyists have thwarted most attempts to regulate the sector, and the new Republican Congress will be far friendlier to the for-profits than were Democrats.

5 RAGING OVER RATINGS

With the first draft of President Obama’s proposed college ratings system soon due for release, community college leaders spent much of 2014 questioning whether it will serve its intended purpose or merely give Washington bureaucrats a new layer of political cover. Billed as an effort to slow the rapid rise in college costs, the proposal would rate colleges on things such as tuition, graduation rates, earnings and debt of their graduates and how many lowerincome students and first-generation students attend. The ratings would compare and contrast colleges against peer institutions, federal officials said. Over the long term, the idea is to tie federal financial aid to ratings. Students at highly-rated colleges would get larger federal grants and more affordable student loans. Poor performers would face sanctions. It would be perform ance-based funding on a national scale. Currently, nearly all the $150 million the federal government funnels to students through colleges is based on student headcounts. It does not take into account metrics such as graduation rates or debt incurred by students. Under the new proposal, students could still attend whatever college they desire, but federal support would shift to higher-ranked schools. During a series of public forums, many top-tier four-year schools embraced the plan. But community colleges questioned the utility of such a system and are asking whether the time and money being invested in developing it is worthwhile. Citing the diversity of community colleges, leaders have long opposed a ratings system. But they are also resigned to the fact that a ratings system is coming, so they have been trying to assure that it is based on reliable data that cast their institutions in the best possible light.

6 COMPETENCY ON THE RISE

To higher education policy makers and analysts, competency-based education in 2014 was the latest big thing, commanding attention from federal agencies, leading foundations and the White House. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new round in its “experimental sites” initiative, clearing the way for colleges to test emerging models of student-focused, outcomes-based approaches without risking their eligibility for federal student aid programs. But some community colleges are ahead of the curve. At Bellevue College, near Seattle, CBE is no experiment but in practice. CBE already has claimed a strong foothold at the college, eliciting an enthusiastic response from students and yielding promising academic results. Bellevue College is part of a wider movement. It is one of 11 community colleges in five states working with Western Governors University — a pioneer in competency-based education — to create their own competency-based degree and certificate programs. Funding is being provided from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sally M. Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at WGU, said the initiative comports with the mission of the online university, which was founded in 1997, and also is a good fit for community colleges, given their close ties to their local communities. WGU plans to share the colleges’ experiences in hopes of expanding competencybased education across the country.

7 SHEDDING REMEDIATION

Each and every year since the 1970s, tens of thousands of Florida community college students began their post-secondary academic careers in a remedial education class in math, reading or writing. Comprising 28 colleges around the state, the colleges — now called state colleges, since many now offer four-year degrees — are a primary point of access to higher education in Florida. About 65 percent of the state’s high school graduates pursuing postsecondary education start at a community college, and 82 percent of freshman and sophomore minority students in Florida public higher education attend a community college. Students flocking to the colleges historically took high-stakes, mandatory placement tests prior to admission. Underperformers are enrolled in noncredit courses to burnish their skills and get them up to speed before plunging into college-level work. More than half of Florida community college students landed in one or more remedial class. It happened every year. But not this year, for in 2014 Florida embarked on what could be called a grand educational experiment. Students can now opt out of remediation and go directly into creditbearing classes and avail themselves of tutors and extra support. The experiment has shaken the world of remedial education and is being watched by community college educators from around the country, as well as policy makers, who are trying to reduce the cost of developmental education.

8 CCSF FIGHTS ON

The fate of the City College of San Francisco is now in the hands of Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow. Last month, Karnow heard final arguments on a lawsuit aimed at overturning a decision by the college’s accreditor to revoke CCSF’s accreditation. That would strip the college of state and federal funding and force the state’s largest community college to close its doors. It was last June that the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges, citing a long list of financial shortcomings, issued its most severe sanction to the 79- year-old institution. City Attorney Dennis Herrera promptly filed suit, contending that the commission’s evaluation of the school was unfair. Among other things, the lawsuit contends the commission had a conflict of interest because ACCJC President Barbara Beno’s husband served on an evaluation committee and that the committee had too few academic members.

More broadly, the suit alleged that City College is the guinea pig in the commission’s push for community college reform. The commission, meanwhile, argued that it was merely doing its federally-mandated job of ensuring the college meets standards. College advocates say the commission has placed the college’s traditional open access mission in jeopardy. Last fall, meanwhile, the commission has offered the college a chance to apply to participate in a newly created process known as restoration, which would give the college two more years to meet the standards. The commission is due to decide in January whether to accept the college’s application.

9 ASPEN FINALISTS

Inner-city Chicago is not normally the first place you’d look for one of the nation’s most successful community colleges. Nor is the South Bronx. It was in the 1970s that South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay, inner-city violence and unremitting poverty. Images of raging fire and burned-out buildings took firm hold in the public imagination. Since then, the area has not experienced much of the redevelopment that has helped revive areas like Harlem. The South Bronx remains one of the country’s poorest areas. But there are signs of a turnaround, perhaps most apparent at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College of The City University of New York (CUNY). The college was named as one of 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s preeminent recognition of high achievement among America’s community colleges. It was joined as a finalist by Chicago’s Kennedy-King College, located in one of the city’s deadliest pieces of real estate.

Their unexpected inclusion in the list of 10 Aspen Prize finalists buoyed college officials and shows that learning can take place even amid rampant poverty. The colleges now are competing for a $1 million prize and national accolades. The award will be handed out in March.

10 DEFAULTS DECLINE

The percentage of community college students defaulting on their student loans headed downward but still far exceeds the national average, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education. The three-year cohort default rate for community colleges was 20.6 percent for students who entered repayment in 2011, down from the 20.9 rate from a year before. By comparison, the overall default rate was 13.7 percent, down one percentage point from the year before. But comparing default rates for community colleges must be undertaken with great caution, said J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the American Association of Community College Trustees. Community college students borrow at far lower rates than students enrolled in other education sectors. Overall, just 17 percent of community college students take out federal loans to finance their educations versus 56 percent of students in all other sectors of higher education. Community colleges serve 42 percent of all undergraduates in the nation. As a result, defaults often reflect a very small percentage of a college’s student population and are a lagging indicator of students who entered repayment several years prior. “Default rates are inherently limited, because they only look at the outcomes of borrowers entering repayment, and the vast majority of community college students don’t borrow,” Brown said. “We are still — by far — the most affordable sector of higher education.”

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