Productivity Push Could Hurt Community Colleges

President Obama is asking to produce more degrees for the dollar; leaders consider more online classes.

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Spurred by the Occupy protests, President Obama is asking college leaders to find ways to limit tuition hikes—and turn out more graduates.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met December 5 with a small group of college chancellors and presidents to discuss affordability and productivity—how to get more degrees for the dollar. Thomas Snyder, president of Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, represented the public, two-year college sector.

The concern is bipartisan: Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, held a subcommittee hearing Nov. 30 on Keeping College Within Reach.

While community college tuitions rose by 8.7 percent this year, the largest rise in any higher education sector, only 13 percent of community college students go into debt. State and local taxpayers heavily subsidize tuition and the federal taxpayers provide Pell Grants for low- and moderate-income students.

[Get tips and advice on paying for college.]

"Out of necessity," the leaders of nonelite universities and community colleges "have the practice of doing more with fewer dollars down to a science," wrote Jonathan Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University in Maryland, complaining that Obama neglected the open-access sector.

However, the push for productivity, known as "the completion agenda," spotlights the very low success rates of community college students. For example, California community colleges spend $8,877 per full-time student, less than the national average for community colleges and much less than the state's four-year universities. But California community colleges spend $65,474 per degree or certificate earned, 40 percent more than the national average, according to a Delta Project analysis.

Some of the productivity proposals on the table are likely to hurt community colleges and their students.

Participants in the White House roundtable agreed on the need for financial aid changes, such as requiring students to enroll full time and limiting the number of semesters of aid eligibility, Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, told the New York Times.

Fifty-nine percent of community college students take classes part time while working and often raising children, estimates the College Board's Advocacy & Policy Center. Graduation rates are very low: Fewer than 8 percent of part-time students complete an associate's degree within four years, and 12 percent earn a certificate in that time, according to Complete College America's 2011 college completion data.

Limiting Pell Grants to full-time students would boost graduation rates significantly, but it would also make it much harder for working adults to try for a certificate or degree.

Any move to link funding to degree completion will be problematic for community colleges, which have low graduation rates even for full-time students. Duncan plans to offer College Completion Incentive Grants to states and institutions that improve graduation rates and close achievement gaps, he said in a Nov. 29 speech to financial aid administrators.

For open-access institutions, such as community colleges, there will be a strong incentive to recruit well-prepared students and send the unprepared to basic skills classes run by adult education programs or community groups.

In the discussion with Obama and Duncan, college leaders also talked about expanding online classes to enable working adults to earn an affordable degree.

"Online courses are a vital piece of the postsecondary puzzle," said Shanna S. Jaggars, who's studied online education for the Community College Research Center of Columbia University's Teachers College. "There are a lot of nontraditional students who would find it very difficult to attend and complete college without the flexibility they offer."

[Read about the continued growth of online education.]

But community college students perform worse in online courses than in face-to-face classes, according to CCRC's study of 51,000 Washington state students from 2004 to 2009.

Although online students were better prepared academically than the average community college student, online students had an 82 percent completion rate, compared to 90 percent for students in traditional courses. Only 74 percent of remedial students completed an online class versus 85 percent for students in face-to-face courses.