Community Colleges are Learning a Lesson in Disruption – and Leadership

580 200 Jim Mayer

(Photo Credit: Parker Knight/Flickr)

Update: Governor Brown and the California Legislature announced a budget deal that would include an online-only community college and a funding formula that ties some funds to student success, reforms discussed here.

From Google Street View, my old community college looks much as it did when I was there 40 years ago. But all 114 community colleges are undergoing long overdue, desperately needed, and unavoidable changes.

Two significant changes — disruptions even — are coming to a head this month in the capitol.

The first is the governor’s proposal to create a statewide online community college to fundamentally restructure education for those who can’t or are unlikely to take classes at fixed times over an 18-week semester at a brick-and-mortar campus. The proposal has met with stiff resistance – none of it from the overworked and low-income Californians who would benefit from being able to learn at work or from home, after helping their kids with their homework.

The second proposal – much less visible, but just as essential — would restructure the way community colleges are funded to provide more money for students who need coaching and to incentivize colleges to help students complete courses, not just enroll in them. This proposal also faces stiff opposition – none of it from the vast majority of students who take six years or more to complete two years worth of education, or the significant plurality of students who drop out altogether.

Finally, all of these “disruptions” proposed by the leadership — by the Governor and the Chancellor — have sparked formal opposition from “the system.” At least two local faculty unions have passed resolutions of “no confidence” against Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

Chancellor Oakley, the former president-superintendent of Long Beach City College, was elevated to statewide chancellor in 2016 because of his undisputed success as a partner in the Long Beach Promise and other innovations that resulted in more students completing more programs. While the complaints are framed as a lack of “consultation,” the real opposition is to the reforms and reformers.

California Forward strongly supports both proposals – and the leaders committed to them. They should be supported by anyone – especially lawmakers – who realize that turbo-charging community colleges is the single best action we can take to reduce income inequality, restore upward mobility, and prepare low-wage Californians for a more automated and loyalty-free workplace of the future.

Indeed, these larger global, technological, economic, social and even political trends are greatly elevating the anxiety and the stakes for the five million Californians with minimum wage jobs and for the 2.5 million young adults with no significant education or training beyond high school.

Over the last decade, the colleges have taken significant but small steps to increase the completion rate — the first was to reluctantly accept that success rates were tragic and that the allure of open access and low-cost college was a mirage for many students.

The enactment in 2016 of the Strong Workforce Program was one step forward. An additional $200 million was allocated to colleges for career technical education programs, a 10 percent boost in the existing $2 billion allocation. More than money, the reform contained performance DNA: New training programs have to be identified in consultation with employers and aligned with in-demand jobs. The money is allocated based on unemployment rates, the capacity of colleges to deliver, and a reward for performance. The curriculum development process was streamlined to allow classes to evolve with changes in the workplace.

The governor’s online college seeks to replicate the significant success of public and nonprofit colleges like Western Governors University, whose online platforms are more flexible, affordable and student-centered – with multiple start times, classes that allow students to progress faster and complete by demonstrating competency.

The proposal also has the potential to capture market share from predatory for-profit online colleges that often over promise and bury low-income students in mountains of debt for credentials they should be able to earn at much lower cost through a public option.

While the online college is geared to reach students and workers who have not been willing to come to campus, it already is “disrupting” the status quo. In many conversations with forward-looking administrators and faculty, CA Fwd has heard an eagerness to integrate those structural elements – multiple starts, competency-based learning, tailored student support – into campus-based programs. That is the right thing to do, and colleges that don’t will and should be left behind.

That’s where the new funding formula comes in — and why it is scary for faculty and administrators who can now pretty much count on the same level of funding just for getting students to stick out the first month of class. Whether it is yoga or biology, whether students ultimately drop out or complete, colleges get paid the same.

The proposed funding formula incorporates the premium extended five years ago to K-12 school districts for serving low-income students and expands on the reward first offered in the Strong Workforce Program.

While serving on the committee that crafted the Strong Workforce incentive formula, I was impressed by innovative college leaders who realized that the reward was worth chasing – for the students and the colleges. We should all be impressed by the growing number of “Strong Workforce Stars” that are showing colleges can produce better outcomes – including students employed in their field of study.

For decades, analysts and advocates have agitated for restructuring colleges so they would adapt to the needs of students – especially those who struggled to complete high school or are required to work full-time, or already have families to care for.

The situation is now urgent: Income inequality is getting worse despite the strong economy. Automation is cracking the lower rungs on the job ladder and the momentum of the gig economy is eroding job security. The housing crisis is also getting worse — stealing more from meager paychecks and pushing people into farther, costly and time-sucking commutes.

Community colleges have long been the cornerstone of California’s commitment to higher education. They must now become the technology and innovation platform that provides hardworking young Californians with the skills they need for the future.

Business as usual is becoming extinct. Disruption is unavoidable. We must put public money where it will provide the most value to those who need it the most — which is the Legislature’s job this month.

Leaders who understand that and provide a vision should be supported, thanked, and rewarded with formal recognition of our confidence. That’s a job for all of us, every day.


Jim Mayer

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