Is Completion Agenda Undermining Historic Open Access Mission?
Drive To Boost Completion Closes Doors on Some Students
The Lumina Foundation, rooted in the student loan industry, is the largest foundation in the United States focused on postsecondary education. With more than $1 billion in assets, Lumina funds a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that work together to shift community colleges nationwide from “access” to “success,” with success defined as “obtaining a credential of economic value” as quickly as possible.
This “completion agenda” threatens to downsize community college enrollment, mission and offerings, and increase student debt. It would undermine community colleges as open access, community-serving institutions that offer opportunities for exploration and lifelong learning alongside vocational training.
Instead, the schools would become sites for highly prescribed full-time degree and certificate programs, unwelcoming to part-time and non-credit students.
“Lumina, and later the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, played a major part in shifting the focus of national higher education policy from access to completion,” writes Barbara Bowen, president of the faculty union at the City University of New York.
The nation’s dominant student loan company, the Student Loan Marketing Corp. (Sallie Mae), infused $770 million dollars into the new USA Group Foundation in 2000. It was renamed the Lumina Foundation for Education in 2001 and rebranded the Lumina Foundation in 2011.
In 2009, Lumina teamed with the Gates Foundation to bankroll Complete College America as a state-level advocacy organization. The foundation also sought to amplify its policy efforts by working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), becoming a lead sponsor of the 2011 ALEC conference, and only cutting those ties in 2013 after the Center for Media and Democracy exposed ALEC as a right-wing corporate legislative bill mill.
In 2010, 58.8 percent of Lumina’s grants (more than $25 million) supported so-called “student success” projects. In 2011, it funded California’s Student Success Task Force and the Campaign for College Opportunity, a non-profit that coordinated advocacy for the Student Success Act of 2012.
“Open access and our students’ freedom to engage in an exploration of their interests and abilities are at stake” with the Task Force proposals, said Richard Hansen, president of California Community College Independents and a member of the Task Force.
Several measures in the Student Success Act tend to downsize enrollment, most notably the state Board of Governors’ (BOG) “academic progress” regulation. When that policy took effect in 2016, students who failed to complete at least half their classes, or whose grades fell below a C for two semesters in a row, faced cancellation of their Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers and loss of priority for class registration — ending community college as the place for second and third chances.
Before the BOG approved the new regulation, it reviewed a scenario detailing exactly who would be impacted by the new policy — 42,116 students statewide, with African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, disabled, and young students experiencing the harshest impact. Nearly one in ten of 18-19 year olds then receiving fee waivers stood to lose them. Other restrictive provisions of the Student Success Act include unit caps, which push students who have accumulated more than 100 units to the back of the enrollment line, and the requirement for all students to take a placement test, declare a major and complete an education plan in order to enroll.
This falls particularly hard on lifelong learners, working adults and parents who can only take one or two classes per semester, and creates bottlenecks when students cannot access a counselor because of understaffing.
California’s new “Full Time Student Success Grant” comes straight from the Complete College America playbook, aggressively pushing fast time to graduation. CCA suggests that states “create incentives for students to take 15 [units] to finish.” With $25 million in the 2017- 18 education budget, California is offering $400 for each community college student taking 12 or more credits per term; the “Community College Completion Grant” ups the incentive to as much as $2,000 for taking 30 units in a year.
But the true cost of community college is closer to $20,000 per year, mainly for living expenses. These token incentives at the taxpayer’s expense entice students toward high unit loads, making it harder for them to work and much more likely to require loans. Narrowing offerings Lumina is promoting “Guided Pathways to Success,” which would narrow the curriculum to six to ten meta-majors, and identifies student choice and exploration as a problem. The current state budget includes $150 million to initiate Guided Pathways.
Recommendations for performance funding, or outcomes-based funding, appeared in early versions of the Student Success Act, but opposition swept them off the table. The proposal, which would tie colleges’ revenue to specific performance targets, such as the number of students completing in a specific time window, continues to be a top Lumina priority.
Lumina’s newest tool for building influence at the state level is the “Strategy Lab,” which provides information, research and analysis to further the foundation’s agenda. Its California state policy consultant is Amy Supinger, a legislative analyst who left her state government job and became the executive director of the Student Success Task Force.
Supinger also co-authored the recently released strategy plan for the California community colleges, “Vision for Success,” though acknowledgement of her current Lumina position appears nowhere in that document. The state legislature’s hearings on revising the California Master Plan for Higher Education will show how much the corporate agenda has eroded the state’s historic commitment to open access.