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2015 March 16 - 11:34 pm

Pushing The Agenda

ACCT Legislative Summit Allows Leaders To Share Concerns

WASHINGTON — John Duffy stood before a microphone inside a cavernous hotel ballroom and asked one of the U.S. Department of Education’s top officials to make him whole again.

Duffy noted that he has two academic degrees, including a master’s in education. What he did not mention was his background: he is the most senior trustee at Elgin Community College (Ill.), having served on the board since 1975. He’s been elected to that body seven times. He’s twice been elected to the Board of Directors of the Association of Community College Trustees. He’s a retired high school teacher and administrator.

Yet in the view of DOE numberscrunchers, “I’m a dropout and a loser,” Duffy said. “How can I finally be ranked as a winner?” Duffy said he’s considered a “loser” because he once took an Astronomy 101 course at Elgin. He never earned a degree from the college, nor did he intend to do so. He presumably took the course for his own enrichment. But according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — IPEDS — he’s counted as a college dropout, just another community college student who started but never finished school. 

Duffy was being facetious, but his remark — which drew laughter and knowing nods inside the ballroom — underscored the limitations of IPEDS, which community colleges long have complained don’t capture many of the students that the institutions serve. Though IPEDS remains the coin of the realm in measuring college effectiveness, it does not capture many of the students community colleges serve: transfer students or those students who come to campus to take some courses for their own enrichment or for professional development.

Instead, IPEDS focuses on full-time, first-time college students. That’s great for elite institutions, but not so much for community colleges. Such students make up a minority on their campuses.

IPEDS was much on the minds of the 900 community college leaders who came to Washington last month to take part in the annual ACCT National Legislative Summit. They advocated for their institutions during visits to Capitol Hill and grilled Obama administration officials on two major higher educational initiatives: a proposal to develop and release a new college ratings system, and America’s College Promise, the administration’s proposal to make community college free for millions of Americans.

In response to Duffy’s remark, Ted Mitchell, U.S. undersecretary of education, conceded that current data systems do not cover “virtuous outcomes” on community college campuses — those that might not lead to a degree but are nonetheless beneficial.

“We need to get better at measuring that,” Mitchell said.

While the distaste that community college officials have for IPEDS is well-documented, they are also concerned about the new ratings system now taking shape. Could it be a case of the cure for IPEDS being worse than the disease?

Both the ACCT and the American Association of Community Colleges are on record as against the ratings system.

Daniel J. Phelan, president of Jackson College (Mich.), voiced a common sentiment when he said he feared that the ratings system would morph into a U.S. News-style rankings system, an anathema to community colleges.

“There is just a hair’s width difference between ratings and rankings,” he told Mitchell.

Mitchell tried to reassure the gathering that the administration is not a rankings system, but an important effort to provide students and parents with more and better information when selecting a college.

“What we want is a ratings system that represents the work that you do,” he said, adding “it is not a comparative rating system of everything your colleges do well.”

The ratings system will focus on three broad areas: access, the notion that colleges are opening opportunity to a broad range of students; affordability, making sure that states and localities do their part in holding the line on tuition and fees; and outcomes, whether students finish their course of study in a timely manner.

The system will be non-punitive, Mitchell said. Similar institutions will be compared to one another, and community colleges will not be compared to four-year institutions. Colleges will be lumped into three categories: shining stars, those colleges in the middle and institutions that need improvement.

“We want to shine a spotlight on the best-performing institutions,” he said. “We need to know about that and share those best practices.”

Mitchell also acknowledged the shortcomings of IPEDS when it comes to community colleges. Yet he warned that the emerging ratings system will be far from perfect and likely will draw criticism.

“The system will be not perfect,” he said. “This is the first iteration” and will need adjustments over time.

The ratings system was one of two issues that dominated the legislative summit. The second was the president’s plan to make community college tuition-free for millions of Americans, an effort aimed at making two years of college as automatic as high school.

James Kvall, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, acknowledged that the proposal faces an uphill fight on Capitol Hill, which is dominated by Republicans opposed to the president’s agenda. Community college advocates need to take the long view. Progress will be incremental, he said.

“That kind of national conversation will bear results, even if the president’s initiative isn’t enacted overnight,” said Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, which coordinates policy for the administration. “One of the great virtues of community colleges is that there’s wide agreement about the value they provide. There’s no reason we can’t build a coalition around investing more in community colleges.”

“It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. There is wide agreement about the value of community colleges. We should be able to build a coalition.”

But when trustees trooped to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, they got a glimpse of just how difficult that coalition will be to assemble. U.S. Bill Flores, a Republican from Texas, was quick to throw cold water on Obama’s proposal.

“There’s no free lunch,” he said during the ACCT Community College Congressional Forum.

“There are not enough jobs…we need to be focused on improving the American economy and less time on creating a new federal bureaucracy.”

Flores was the sole Republican to appear before the group. Several Republican lawmakers were invited to attend but declined, most citing scheduling conflicts.

Many of the questions attendees had about the plan remained unanswered. How will it be paid for? Which occupational training programs would qualify for the program? Why do students need a 2.5 GPA to qualify when they only need a 2.0 to qualify for aid such as Pell Grants? Answers to all those questions and more proved elusive.

And what about a little-noticed provision that says states must implement “substantial” performance-based funding to qualify for federal money under the program? “Substantial” was not defined and will require further clarification. Some trustees said the requirements seemed like a federal intrusion into state budget matters.

If nothing else, the proposal has reignited a robust conversation about the value of community colleges, said ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown. The nation needs to capitalize on the renewed energy, he said.

“Don’t view this as a partisan proposal,” Brown told NLS attendees. “View this as a restatement of American goals and values that have been articulated throughout our history — and especially since World War II through the mid- 1970s when this nation, without excuses, made a tremendous investment in the most productive education system in the world.”

But since then, public investments in community colleges have dropped. Brown urged attendees to help “rekindle that sprit and those investments.”

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