To date, the slowly building wave of reform that steadily washes around Louisiana higher education certainly has lifted community and technical colleges. As baccalaureate-and-above institutions have experienced retrenchment, these have enjoyed rapid growth and state money that comes with it, courtesy of policy decisions. So these institutions should get out of their getting mode and into their giving mode when it comes to alterations they need to make in response to policy changes they may not find quite as appetizing as those before.
Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, in a luncheon address complained that the higher education funding formula, which in so many other ways has come to favor those kinds of schools, does not when it comes to penalties it levies for non-completing students. Recent formulaic changes now deliver funds for schools for the number of course completers, not enrollees. The previous emphasis on getting people to sign up for classes created incentives for warm bodies to register, but not to finish coursework or, more importantly, degrees.
May noted that community colleges are open admissions – anybody with a high school diploma or General Equivalency Degree can enroll for their classes. This increases the chance that unprepared students do so, where as a term begins schools must budget for teachers and space according to this number. If a larger proportion of these students drop out of classes or their entire program for that semester, then the school ends up wasting money, such as by hiring teachers not necessary when the final numbers are in.
But there’s no reason community colleges need to be open admissions, if an associates’ degree is the goal. If a student desires some kind of certification or a class here or there for adding a specific kind of skill, these can continue in that mode. However, some kind of admissions standard (such as a minimum score on the American College Test) can be implemented for those who intend to complete a two-year degree, or who wish to transfer to another institution after collecting more than a minimal number of hours. This would screen out many who simply do not have the aptitude and/or genuine desire to pursue serious study at the collegiate level, preserving resources from being wasted on them.
This also would save taxpayers in another way. One perverse impact of the new funding formula would be to encourage these entities to lower standards, in order to keep as many students in class as possible. Already, baccalaureate-and-above state universities, which have unchallenging to partially demanding admissions criteria, find that dealing with transfers from community colleges can be a problem if the institutions from which these students come is not challenging, because in essence this transfers the “open access” problem to them – unprepared transfer students find themselves unable to succeed in a qualitatively more rigorous environment. (For example, recipients of associates’ degrees automatically are admitted to most baccalaureate programs, even if they could not otherwise meet admissions criteria.) So by creating minimal admissions standards at community colleges, universities also can use their resources more wisely by avoiding a similar problem not even of their own making.
Naturally, this would mean fewer students coming into state community colleges, meaning fewer dollars headed the way of these institutions. However, if funding will occur on the back end, especially to protect quality, why not more fully ensure at the front end the amount of funding? Unless community colleges are interested in lowering standards, knowing less money accepted up front but with much more assurance it actually will manifest should make for better budgeting and planning than doing this on the basis of hoping to get more money than you actually receive at the end and the experiencing unpleasant costs that may result (the alternative being deliberately not providing enough classes, which then would shut out students who would succeed, perhaps delaying if not denying them degree completion).
If keeping integrity intact, paying more now than later makes better sense for community colleges. Policy-makers should end the open access model for all such students not in a certificate program or who enroll for more than a minimal number of hours.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 09:35