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2016 January 22 - 02:33 pm

The Year That Was

CCWeek Examines the Events and Trends That Marked 2015 and Lists the Year’s Top Stories

In 2015, many of the community college stories that dominated the headlines were the same ones that commanded attention in 2014, but with tangible signs of progress. That’s the way is usually happens in higher education. Stories unfold in a continuum rather than suddenly emerging.

Last year, for example, free community college went from proposal to reality in Tennessee, in the process sparking a robust debate about college access affordability. For-profit colleges were again under fire, particularly when Corinthian Colleges filed for bankruptcy, sparking a huge federal bailout. A much-ballyhooed college ratings proposal, under discussion in 2014, was scrapped last year amid fierce opposition from every corner of higher education.

But the story that leapt to the top of Community College Week’s 2015 Top Ten Stories list was something that was wholly unexpected but sadly familiar: a mass shooting. This time it took the lives of nine people at tiny Umpqua Community College during the opening weeks of classes, shattering a small town in rural Oregon and setting off another debate about gun control.

In a sense, the shootings were not a community college story at all, but another in a string of shootings that stretched from Charleston, S.C., to San Bernardino, Calif. But because of its impact on the community and its efforts to recover from the tragedy, the Umpqua Community College was selected as the top community college story of 2105. Here is the complete list.


Umpqua Community College joined the grim list of locations like Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook where mass shootings have brought grief and pain to communities and deepened frustration about the inability of policy makers to stop such attacks. On Oct. 1, a 26-year-old gunman armed with an assault rifle opened fire at the small, rural college, slaying eight students and a professor before killing himself. The attack shattered Roseburg, Ore., a timber town of 20,000 people; the college serves as the town’s cultural and social hub. The massacre reignited national debates about gun violence, school safety, mental health and media coverage. President Obama visited Roseburg and met privately with grieving families, ignoring protests from gun-rights activists. He lamented that mass shootings and the reaction to them have become “routine.”


When President Obama proposed making two years of community college free for nearly every American last January, most political pundits immediately dismissed the idea as impossible in a Congress so gridlocked by partisanship that it can’t complete simple tasks, let alone enact a sweeping initiative. But while a Republicancontrolled Congress likely will not pass any bill the president supports, the free-college proposal touched off a broader discussion on how to reduce the cost of college and open the doors of higher education to disadvantaged groups. With states and individual colleges taking the lead, and talked up by Democratic presidential candidates, the idea of universal community college appears to be gaining traction. Oregon became the second state to enact a free community college program when Gov. Kate Brown signed into law legislation that has been dubbed the Oregon Promise. That followed the lead of Tennessee, where the Tennessee Promise enrolled 16,000 students in colleges across the state in 2015. State and college leaders there are now shifting the focus onto retention and degree completion.


Amid much fanfare and media attention, President Obama in 2013 announced that his administration was embarking on what turned out to be a fool’s errand: assigning a ranking to each of the country’s 7,000 institutions of higher education. The system, he said, would expose low-rated schools that leave graduates with high levels of debt but poor prospects landing a good job. But from the start, the proposed ratings system was fiercely opposed by college officials, including those in the two-year sector. They complained that no single ratings system could accurately capture the diverse mission of open-access community colleges. And a central premise of the plan — tying federal aid to the ratings system — was criticized a colossally bad idea. After months of planning, public hearings and public comment, the Obama raised the white flag, scrapping the ratings system in favor of a website that provides information to prospective students and their parents about annual costs, graduation rates and salaries after graduation.


Early last month, the federal government announced that it is erasing the loan debt of more than 7,000 former students of the nowdefunct Corinthian Colleges, totaling more than $100 million, a huge sum, but still only a small fraction of a federal debt-forgiveness program that could run into the billions of dollars. The announcement was the latest episode in the collapse of Corinthian, once one of the country’s largest for-profit education providers but now in bankruptcy. Under an extraordinary loan forgiveness plan, students have been applying to be let free of their loans, claiming they had been lied to or misled by the company. Corinthian filed for bankruptcy protection in May amid allegations that it misled potential students about completion and job placements rates and was fined $30 million by the federal government. The bailout of Corinthian students could potentially cost up to $3.2 billion if all students who borrowed government money dating back to 2010 were to seek relief. More than 17,000 claims for college loan debt relief have been received by the department. The episode also put a spotlight on the troubled for-profit education sector, which has seen enrollment decline by more than 500,000 students since 2010.


President Obama set an ambitious, even audacious goal for the nation’s colleges and universities: By the year 2020, the country would again have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, reversing a trend that had seen the United States tumble to 19th in college completion rates, according to a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But in 2015, college completion rates were in decline, for every institution type and every age group. Among students who started their college education at a two-year school, the six-year completion rate for students who started college in 2009 was 38.1 percent, compared to 39.1 percent for the 2008 cohort. The decline was blamed on the after-effects of the Great Recession: Many of the students who enrolled in college in 2009 to burnish their skills in a depressed job market, but then left school as the economy improved and they were able to get a job. The same dynamic is blamed for a continuing decline in community college enrollment.


The end of 2015 also brought an end of the tenure of U.S. Secretary of Education of Arne Duncan, one of the longest-serving education secretary in history. He was replaced by Deputy Education Secretary John King Jr., former commissioner of education in New York. Duncan’s tenure will be remembered most for his work with elementary and secondary schools and his support of the Common Core educational standards, which earned him criticism from across the political spectrum. But under his stewardship, and in the absence of congressional action, the Education Department earned a reputation for activism in higher education, which critics charged as overreaching. Duncan championed President Obama’s call for free community college. The department overhauled student loan programs and doubled the amount of money devoted to Pell Grants for the poorest students. It also cracked down on for-profit colleges, creating the “gainful employment” standard, requiring for-profit colleges to prove they were preparing graduates for the workplace. It also created more oversight, requiring colleges to implement reforms in exchange for increased funding.


Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., was named winner of the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, emblematic of the top community college in the country. The college was selected from among ten finalists for the award, which comes with an $800,000 prize. Awarded every two years, the prize recognizes outstanding institutions selected from an original pool of more than 1,000 community colleges; 2015 was the third time the award has been issued. The 2013 prize was shared by Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) and Walla Walla Community College (Wash.). Under Aspen Institute rules, former winners were ineligible to compete in 2015. The institute measured colleges in four areas: degree and certificate completion, student learning, including the use of data to measure and improve outcomes; employment and earnings of graduates; and admission and success rates of minority and underrepresented students. The institute cited Santa Fe’s success in helping students transfer to the nearby University of Florida. Santa Fe students successfully earn bachelor’s degrees at a rate more than double the national average. The college has created clear pathways to degrees, employing technology that enables them to align their course choices with transfer requirements.


California education officials chose 15 community colleges to be the first to offer bachelor’s degrees in high-need fields. It’s a pilot program meant to boost local economies and help students avoid costly for-profit programs. Degrees will be offered in fields as diverse as automotive technology, dental hygiene, bio-manufacturing, emergency services, airframe manufacturing and mortuary science, where jobs are plentiful but skilled workers are in short supply. California — home of the country’s largest community college system — joined more than 20 other states where community colleges now offer bachelor’s degrees. Of the state’s 112 colleges, 34 competed to be in the program and submitted detailed applications in the fall. Colleges were selected for quality, need in the labor market and geographic diversity. “These colleges are embarking on a new mission for the California Community Colleges that will expand opportunities in public higher education,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris. “Students will have a range of programs from which to choose to earn high quality, affordable and in-demand degrees. California employers win too, as they will have improved access to highly qualified candidates in these fields.”


Every year higher education officials look for the next big thing, the development will change the college narrative. Think MOOCs, for example, or competency-based education. In 2015, the next big thing was computer coding boot camps — intensive, accelerated learning programs that are akin to trade schools for the digital age, holding the promise of teaching students the latest computer programming technologies and providing fast-track access to high-paying jobs in the computer industry. The movement has been growing for years, but in 2015 caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which is seeking to fuel innovations in skills training. The Education Department is considering extending federal aid eligibility to boot camps with the goal of promoting program growth, increasing access for low-income and working-class students, and confronting the computer industry’s lack of diversity. But observers have urged the Education Department to proceed with caution, fearing that the programs could grow to resemble for-profit education, where the flow of federal aid has created a flood of low-quality programs financed with federal dollars.


On Aug. 2, Typhoon Souledor, packing winds of more than 150 miles an hour, slammed into Saipan, the main island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands in a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean. The storm destroyed hundreds of homes and knocking out power to the entire island. The sole institution of higher education in the remote commonwealth — Northern Marianas College — took a major hit, the worst damage to a college campus since Hurricane Katrina. Nineteen of 25 buildings on campus received some form of damage. Some entire departments at the college were ruined. About 30 faculty, staff, and student workers were displaced from the college’s Cooperative Research Education and Extension Services Department. Power to the campus was out for seven weeks. The college had to compress the normal 15-week semester was compressed into nine weeks. Enrollment dipped by 10 percent.

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