Community college enrollments worry campus leaders

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Administrators at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., steeled themselves for an enrollment decrease this fall after the college lost 1,254 students -- 14 percent of the student body -- in fall 2020 compared to the previous year. They predicted a smaller decline of about 2 percent this quarter, but the drop was much deeper. The student head count plummeted by about 20 percent this fall, to 6,065 students from 7,664 in fall 2020.

Over the course of the pandemic, the college has lost about a third of its student body.

“It’s going to take time to recover from that,” said Paul Jarrell, provost and executive vice president of the college. “It will take us several years to build back the enrollments we lost in the last two years.”

The college now has about $3 million less in tuition revenues than expected in a typical year. Tuition accounts for half of the college’s overall funding; the transition to online courses and lost revenues meant about 300 part-time employees and student workers had to be let go in spring 2020 and vacant positions were not filled, according to KLCC, the local public radio station in Eugene.

Jarrell expects the downward trend to continue until the college can return to offering half its classes in person next quarter. About 80 percent of the college’s courses are currently online because of a surge in the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus in the county. He said students told college leaders in student forums last year that they were unenthused about another quarter of remote learning. He worries students who left won’t come back next quarter.

“The longer students stay out of school, the less likely they are to return,” Jarrell said. “My biggest fear is the lost opportunities for students and how permanent that might be.”

His concerns about the future of the college and its students are all too familiar for many community college leaders across the country, whose institutions are also experiencing enrollment declines again this fall after steep drop-offs last year. Community college enrollment fell roughly by 10 percent nationally -- a loss of over 544,200 students -- in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Spring 2021 semester enrollment numbers were comparably worrying. They fell by 9.5 percent compared to spring 2020. These pandemic-related losses come after about a decade of enrollment declines at community colleges, and in some geographic areas, decreasing populations of traditional college-age residents.

“What we are seeing is it’s kind of all over the place in terms of enrollment -- some up, some down, some level,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior vice president at the Association of Community College Trustees.

Steven Gonzales, interim chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, was also “really surprised” by the most recent dip in enrollment at the district’s 10 colleges. The number of students enrolled in credit-bearing courses fell by 15 percent in 2020, to 103,853 from 122,392 in 2019, and head count dropped by about 4 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

The decline in students last year forced the district to reduce its operating budget by 3 percent.

“We’re going to need to dig out of this hole that we’re in,” Gonzales said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be faced with some tough decisions.”

Jarrell said administrators at Lane Community College are working on new enrollment strategies but also recognize the need for a shift in approach to become a "leaner, more efficient" college. They’re asking themselves, if low enrollment persists for several years, "How do we become a smaller college?"

They’re also wondering about larger economic repercussions beyond the campus.

"While the impact is huge to our campuses, the impact is even greater to the communities that the campuses serve," Jarrell said. "Community colleges are seen as that socioeconomic engine for a community," and the harder it is for colleges to operate, "the less of an engine we can be."

To be sure, not all community colleges are suffering declines. Some are experiencing enrollment upticks. For example, three out of 15 colleges in the Mississippi Community College System -- Northeast Mississippi, East Mississippi and Mississippi Delta Community Colleges -- saw enrollment increases. However, they are the exceptions and not the norm. Jarrell believes the majority of community colleges are still "hurting."

Adenuga Atewologun, president of Riverland Community College in Minnesota, is focused on the financial ramifications for community colleges still experiencing enrollment declines.

“If you can’t build your enrollment back, then you have to downsize staff … instruction and support services,” Atewologun said. “It’s very important for us right now to start finding ways to build enrollment back. Otherwise, an institution like ours, and many institutions across the country, will find themselves in a downward spiral.”

Unlike many of its peer institutions, the rural college in Minnesota saw an increase in enrollment between the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, but student head count dropped by about 11 percent this fall so far compared to the previous fall. The college usually attracts a significant number of international students because it offers on-campus housing. International students generally make up about 10 percent of the student body, but those numbers dwindled during the pandemic.

Atewologun said the approximately $69 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds doled out to higher education institutions, including community colleges, was a much-needed temporary relief for the sector, and the money helped his college stave off budget cuts. But he believes the real test will be when the relief funds stop flowing next year.

“One-time money does not bode well for us for long-term financial sustainability,” he said.

Lee said community colleges that used COVID-19 relief funds to clear balances owed by students could see positive effects on their enrollments.

Dustin Weeden, senior policy analyst for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said luckily for community colleges, state appropriations have “steadily been going up nationally,” though appropriations are still below levels of a decade ago.

A report by the association found that state appropriations per full-time student increased for an eighth consecutive year in fiscal year 2020. A year of budget slashing followed, with 13 states lowering higher education appropriations by a net total of $417.5 million in fiscal year 2021, according to a report from the National Association of State Budget Officers. This year, states appear to be reupping their investments in higher education as their revenues recover from the pandemic, with notable funding increases in California, Kansas, Missouri and other states.

“What is going to be the line where state legislatures start saying, ‘OK, we keep giving you more money, but your enrollments are going down. Why do you continue to need more money?’” Weeden said.

He noted that colleges in states with performance-based funding formulas, which take enrollment levels into account, among other factors to inform budget recommendations, could find themselves having to drastically improve graduation rates to make up for lost revenue from enrollment declines.

Community colleges resorted to a range of incentives to lure students back to campuses this fall. Institutions loaned students laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, launched sweeping marketing campaigns, and offered a range of freebies -- including free courses and textbooks, tuition discounts, and even cash payments -- to alleviate students’ financial burdens and encourage enrollment.

The Maricopa district capped tuition at $1,020 per semester for Arizona residents last fall and spring so students could enroll in up to 21.5 course credits for the price of 12 credits. It didn’t work. Low-income and first-generation students still struggled to balance supporting their families during the pandemic and paying for college. The flat tuition rate made less of a dent than Gonzales hoped.

“We thought that might help entice students to not only come to us but take a stronger load,” he said. “It really didn’t have a significant impact on our students.”

Andrew Bowne, president of Johnson County Community College in Kansas, pointed out that low unemployment rates are also a factor pushing students to choose between taking available jobs or spending time and money on college. The unemployment rate has hovered around 3 percent in Kansas.

He noted that enrollment has been decreasing at many community colleges for years prior to the pandemic and declined by more than 20 percent at his college over the last five years.

“For community colleges, we are historically countercyclical to the economy,” he said. “When the economy is strong, enrollment drops off. When the economy is struggling, enrollment grows. Folks are working -- they’re working a lot -- and finding time to go to college became less of an immediate priority.”

Rural and urban institutions are facing different challenges related to their enrollment declines this fall.

Gonzales said urban colleges are competing with for-profit colleges for the same students.

Atewologun said demographic shifts mean fewer high school students are graduating and going to college in some states, and young people in rural areas are moving to less remote places with more job opportunities. And as older workers retire, there aren’t enough graduates entering the local labor market to sustain local industries. These dynamics pose an existential threat to rural colleges.

"For rural colleges, it’s a question of, in my mind, survival," he said.

Despite the changing enrollment landscape, community college leaders largely seem hopeful that students will return, provided institutions offer the supports students need to enroll -- and stay enrolled.

"There’s a lot of work for us to do as a sector around these needs, but I think we’re hopeful that numbers rebound once the pandemic is over," Atewologun said. "Of course, I don’t have an end date for that one yet."

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California community colleges expand baccalaureate programs

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California community college advocates and leaders are applauding new state legislation that allows two-year institutions to award four year-degrees.

Assembly Bill 927, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 6, makes baccalaureate programs being piloted at 15 community colleges permanent and allows other community colleges across the state to also create the programs. The law allows the California Community Colleges system to offer up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year, provided the programs fill different workforce needs than programs already available within the state’s university systems.

“We think it really allows our community colleges the flexibility and the authority to continue designing programs to meet the needs of California’s ever-changing economy and workforce,” said David O’Brien, vice chancellor for governmental relations for California Community Colleges.

Star Rivera-Lacey, president and superintendent at Palomar College, a two-year institution north of San Diego, said the legislation will give students affordable bachelor’s degree options at colleges where “they’ve already been successful” without having to encounter new hurdles transferring to a four-year university.

“For us, it’s like Christmas,” Rivera-Lacey said. “Community colleges have always been a place of accessibility. To add a bachelor’s degree to that -- I think this is a game changer, and I think California has been waiting for it for a while.”

The new legislation allows community college administrators to submit proposals for new bachelor’s degrees to the office of the chancellor of the community college system during two annual cycles. Fifteen programs per cycle will be considered and must pass a review process by the chancellor’s office, California State University and University of California systems administrators, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. The number of baccalaureate degree programs offered by a community college district must be fewer than a quarter of the number of the district’s associate degree programs.

The restrictions are designed to ensure the chancellor’s office isn’t overwhelmed by proposals and community colleges don’t duplicate programs already offered by the state’s university systems, O’Brien said.

Two dozen states currently allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. Many did so only after hard-fought battles between supporters and opponents of such programs. University system leaders frequently resisted these measures, arguing community colleges would offer similar programs and compete with them for students or undermine existing transfer pathways and partnerships. The California legislation had no publicly stated opposition, however.

“The University of California will continue to evaluate the impact of AB 927 on the University’s instructional mission,” read a statement from the system's Office of the President. “Although the University did not take a position on AB 927, we appreciate the Legislature’s interest in enhancing educational outcomes for students across California.”

Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development for the CSU system, said Cal State leaders did worry about duplicate degree programs and advocated for a thorough review process as part of the bill.

“We are concerned that there could be overlap, which is why the bill addresses that issue,” she said. “I wanted to be sure that the CSU had time to conduct a review of the proposal, and if we saw overlap, we had a process by which to express that and have a conversation about it and come to an agreement. We feel like we have the opportunity to have these conversations.”

She said the review process creates “a little more work for my office and my staff,” but otherwise “there should be no impact.”

The idea of community college baccalaureate programs in California wasn’t always so widely accepted. Constance Carroll, president and CEO of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association and retired chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said the pilot programs, which were established seven years ago, initially faced opposition similar to other states. But the pilots -- which underwent two evaluations by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office -- also gave stakeholders an opportunity to see the effects of these kinds of programs for themselves.

She also believes the pandemic exposed how community colleges could play an important role to meet the state’s workforce demands alongside four-year institutions.

“California has many, many unmet job needs, employment needs, that have crested during the pandemic … so the timing was also right,” she said.

Carroll also noted that many fields that used to welcome graduates with associate degrees have shifted to requiring entry-level employees to have bachelor’s degrees, forcing community colleges to phase out some of their two-year programs. Community colleges now have an opportunity to adapt to the labor market and offer students inexpensive degrees that lead to jobs, she said. Tuition for a California community college baccalaureate degree program is capped at $10,560 for all four years.

“It’s beyond affordable,” she said. “This is the greatest bargain imaginable.”

Angela Kersenbrock, president of the national Community College Baccalaureate Association, said community college baccalaureate programs also allow students to continue their education in their local communities rather than transfer to an institution elsewhere.

“It’s at your local community college -- you’re already comfortable there, they’re aligned with industries in your community,” she said. “For the community, you’re not going to have somebody who leaves, goes two or three hours away and then never comes back, so it helps the communities as well as the families.”

Community college leaders are now eagerly preparing to brainstorm and pitch new baccalaureate degree programs.

Judy Miner, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Northern California and chair of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association Board of Directors, said she felt a combination of “ecstasy, relief, excitement” when the bill became law.

Her district hosts one of the pilot programs, a baccalaureate in dental hygiene at Foothill College, and she hopes the district will also be allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees in respiratory therapy and automotive technology. She also believes conversations with employers in Silicon Valley will yield more ideas for new programs.

Advocates of the legislation noted that they might want to renegotiate parts of it in the future. For example, O’Brien, of the chancellor’s office, said community colleges could help four-year institutions by offering some of the same programs in fields where they’re struggling to keep up with demand.

Miner noted that the law prevents community colleges from offering nursing baccalaureates, even though universities don’t have enough seats to accommodate all the would-be nurses looking for training, but she plans to focus her efforts on what the law does allow.

“I’m sure those will be conversations far off into the future,” she said.

In the meantime, passage of the legislation in an influential state such as California is a win for the broader national movement to legalize community college baccalaureate programs.

“Given the size and importance of the state, California being a part of this effort will definitely strengthen the national movement,” Carroll said.

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New legislation makes permanent California’s 15 pilot community college baccalaureate programs.
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California governor vetoes bill to overhaul the Cal Grant

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California higher education leaders and advocates, still riding high from a recent string of legislative wins on education funding, were dealt a blow when Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a major reform bill that would have expanded the state financial aid program to hundreds of thousands more students.

Assembly Bill 1456 would have eliminated some barriers that barred students from guaranteed aid -- such as a GPA verification requirement for community college students -- and simplified the overall structure of the program. The bill had unanimous support among lawmakers and would have extended aid to about 160,000 students through the Cal Grant program, a state financial aid program for students in the California State University, University of California or California Community College systems, or qualifying independent and career colleges or technical schools in the state.

But Newsom, who vetoed the bill Friday, said the cost of such a major expansion was too high.

“This bill results in significant cost pressures to the state, likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Newsom wrote in an explanation to the California State Assembly.

Democratic assemblymembers Jose Medina, Kevin McCarty and state Senator Connie Levya, all authors of the bill, issued a statement expressing disappointment in the governor’s decision.

“The bill, if signed into law, would have been the largest expansion of our state’s financial aid system in a generation,” the statement read. “For over three years, we have worked with the California Student Aid Commission, educators, and student groups to reform the Cal Grant program.”

Newsom agreed that “making the Cal Grant program simpler to navigate would benefit our students and their families,” but “future changes to the financial aid system of this magnitude should be considered as a part of the annual budget process.”

California Department of Finance officials had also opposed the bill, arguing that the legislation would be pricier to implement than the bill’s supporters predicted. The California Student Aid Commission estimated the bill would require a one-time cost of $57.8 million, plus $82.6 million per year in ongoing costs during the program's transition. Finance department officials estimated a much higher price and said the reforms would cost an extra $174.4 million per year in ongoing costs above current state appropriation levels, in addition to the initial $57.8 million.

The bill aimed to streamline the Cal Grant by dividing the program into two kinds of awards: Cal Grant 2, for community college students, and Cal Grant 4, for students at four-year institutions. Cal Grant 4 would cover tuition and fees for students in the California State University and University of California systems, and Cal Grant 2 would go toward nontuition costs for community college students, with a provision that the award amount would change in future years based on inflation.

The Cal Grant program is notoriously confusing and has a variety of award options based on students’ financial aid application responses, the kind of institution they attend and how long they’ve been out of high school, said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based research and advocacy organization focused on student success.

“Cal Grant is too complicated and students cannot navigate and know for certain what they are entitled to, and that really hinders their ability to do long-term planning,” Dow said.

The bill would have also removed a GPA verification requirement for community college students to be entitled to Cal Grants, which would help older students who don’t have their high school transcripts.

“A student could be 40, 50 years old coming back in for retraining,” Dow said. “Imagine going back to your high school and trying to dig up a transcript. Imagine if you were educated in another county, another state, another country. It’s incredibly difficult. A lot of adults at that point just give up.”

The legislation also would have eliminated the one-year limit on time out of high school for students attending CSU and UC institutions. Students out of high school for more than a year are now shuttled into a separate eligibility pool for the Cal Grant Competitive Awards, where about 300,000 students vie for roughly 30,000 competitive grants, Dow said.

The veto of the bill comes during a surge of money and attention showered on colleges and universities and their students by state lawmakers this year, Cal Matters reported. The latest package of higher ed bills totaled about $47 billion. Newsom previously removed restrictions on age and time out of high school for community college students seeking Cal Grants in his 2021-22 budget, approved this summer. That decision made about 133,000 additional community college students eligible for the grants.

Manny Rodriguez, associate director of policy and government relations at the Education Trust-West, an advocacy organization focused on education equity in California, noted the state’s budget surplus this year -- in part the result of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds -- and called the veto of the bill a “missed opportunity.”

“Was this the one-time year we could have funded this, because next year we’re not going to have this historic infusion of dollars?” Rodriguez said.

California student groups praised the spate of new investments in higher education but also argued more reforms to the Cal Grant program should be a legislative priority.

“We are grateful for the Governor’s support for many new higher education initiatives as well as the new investment in the state’s Cal Grant program in this year’s budget, but we all know more needs to be done,” Isaac Alferos, president of the Cal State Student Association, said in a statement from the Fix Financial Aid Coalition, which includes student leaders from public state college systems. “California’s financial aid system needs fundamental changes to ensure that our institutions are truly accessible to marginalized communities.”

Daisy Gonzales, California Community Colleges acting chancellor, also commended the governor for the financial support but said the bill was critical.

“Without equitable access to financial aid programs, hundreds of thousands of low-income California community college students will be denied the aid they need to not only afford college but to excel,” she said in a release.

Proponents of the bill hope to renew their efforts to overhaul the Cal Grant program in the next state budgeting process.

“There’s no arguing that addressing the cost of college is costly,” Dow said. “But it’s also costly to the state to have an undereducated populace. When individuals have a higher education, they become the talent force of our state. It’s a worthwhile investment. I’m hopeful that next year we can put an even larger down payment on affordability.”

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California governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill last week that would have made more than 100,000 students eligible for more financial aid.
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California law to ease transfer process sparks controversy

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California lawmakers and some higher ed leaders and advocates celebrated last week when Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that aims to simplify the transfer process for community college students and offer a smoother path for enrolling at University of California and California State University institutions.

Supporters of the legislation see it as a win for students. California Community College system administrators and faculty groups, who opposed the bill and consider it well intentioned but misguided, say it’s anything but. They worry the new measure limits students’ academic options and doesn’t hold universities accountable for removing potential roadblocks in the transfer process.

“It’s just going to make transfer much clearer, given the real maze that transfer has been for too, too long,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based advocacy and research organization, who helped craft the legislation.

The split between proponents and opponents of the law is “quite rare” for legislation intended to help students, said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which advocates for legislative and policy priorities and opposed the bill. He said the debate over the new policy suggests the law is out of touch with the needs of community colleges and the students they serve.

Many of the supporters “don’t have any sort of real connection to our community colleges and the day-to-day work that we do,” he said.

The legislation requires the UC and CSU systems to settle on a common set of general education classes and create a single lower-division transfer pathway by fall 2025. It also requires California Community Colleges to automatically place all students who plan to transfer on an associate degree for transfer, or ADT, pathway, unless they opt out, by August 2024. These transfer pathways offer students guaranteed admission to an institution within the CSU system, and versions of them are accepted at some private universities and some historically Black colleges. The law also establishes a committee of representatives from the community college and university systems to oversee the ADT pathway.

Supporters of the law argue that it streamlines a leaky and overcomplicated transfer process in which students end up taking extra courses, which translates to extra costs, and often fail to transfer altogether.

Only 22 percent of students in the state who started at a community college in 2015-16 transferred to a four-year institution after three years, according to data from the California Community Colleges.

“The most important part of this bill is it centers students in transfer and transfer reform,” said Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development for the CSU system. She believes the legislation offers community college students a “much clearer path forward” to a bachelor’s degree at a CSU institution. She also noted that creating a single joint pathway to the UC and CSU systems means students won’t feel “overwhelmed” by choices when it comes to which lower-division classes to take.

That’s not how key leaders in the California Community Colleges system see things. The chancellor’s office, the Community College League of California and the system’s Academic Senate, among others, all came out against the bill and argued the measures are the wrong way to fix the transfer process.

Some opponents have qualms about putting more students on the existing ADT pathway because it guarantees admission to a CSU institution somewhere in the system, but not necessarily a CSU institution of a student’s choice. This point has caused confusion among some students.

Stephanie Goldman, associate director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said the lack of choice inconveniences students rooted in a particular geographic area. For example, a student attending a college in the San Diego Community College District might be admitted to Humboldt State University, which is hours away.

“That’s a problem for a lot of our students,” Goldman said. “Many of our students don’t have the resources to move because of jobs or family.”

The California Community Colleges chancellor’s office is “generally supportive” of a joint general education transfer pathway between the UC and CSU systems, said David O’Brien, the system’s vice chancellor for governmental relations. However, “the biggest concern” for system administrators is that the bill does nothing to compel the UC system to accept students on the ADT transfer pathway or to push the CSU system to guarantee them more seats at more institutions. He also noted that placing students on the ADT pathway will require the community colleges to provide more training for academic advisers and faculty members to help students navigate the change.

“Over all, we see a lot of workload being put on community colleges … which we will do and will implement with full fidelity and integrity,” he said. “And we don’t see a lot in the way of expectations on the receiving institutions.”

Critics of the bill also argued that not all students want to transfer to a CSU institution.

Leaders of the California Community Colleges Student Senate said in an August letter to State Assemblymember Marc Berman, the author of the bill, that the group would support the legislation if the provision to place students on the ADT pathway was removed.

“By automatically placing students on an ADT pathway, these students may be at a serious disadvantage, which would require them to potentially take additional courses if they choose a different route later in their time at CCC such as pursuing a degree at UC or a private institution,” they wrote.

Hawkins said a single UC and CSU general education pathway could theoretically solve this problem by making students simultaneously eligible to transfer to either system, but he believes aligning the two sets of general education courses will prove difficult and ultimately limit students’ course options.

The University of California Office of the President also opposed the legislation due to similar concerns about course variety.

“California community college students from low-income and/or underrepresented backgrounds should have the full range of options available to them as do their more advantaged peers, not a narrower path,” Kieran Flaherty, the office’s associate vice president and director of state governmental relations, wrote in an August letter to the chair of the California Senate appropriations committee.

He also argued that some of the differences between the UC and CSU systems’ transfer requirements reflect “differences in the missions and values of our institutions” and implementing a new singular pathway will be burdensome and costly.

A statement from the UC system said system leaders “will continue to evaluate the impact of the bill on the University’s students, governance structure, and the academic mission of UC.”

Siqueiros doesn’t buy the arguments that the legislation will force students onto an ill-fitting transfer pathway or deprive them of academic options. She believes streamlining measures doesn’t mean ignoring other issues, such as helping students attend universities near where they live. She added that course variety also is not a top priority for community college students.

“The idea that we should offer all of these different courses, even if they don’t lead to anything, is not why most students go to a community college,” she said. “Most students go because they want to transfer to a university.”

Wrynn noted that creating a joint pathway will be labor-intensive for faculty members across institutions. But “whenever you try to transform general education, it leads to challenges,” she said. “Will this be hard work for our system? Yes. But in the end, this is going to benefit our students.”

Hawkins said proponents and opponents of the bill share the same goal -- to improve the transfer system -- but he believes hiring more counselors to help students navigate the process or designating more seats at CSU institutions for former community college students would yield better results.

“We’re not saying the status quo is something we’re defending here,” he said. “What we’re saying is that we think this is a very simple way of solving a complex problem.”

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California governor Gavin Newsom signed a new bill into law last week intended to smooth transfer pathways.
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What accounts for community college student outcomes?

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Students enrolled in community college programs with higher numbers of students from underrepresented minority backgrounds earn less and have a harder time paying back their student loans after leaving college, according to a recent report.

The report from the Brookings Institution, a public policy research institute, also found, however, that other factors, especially the mix of academic programs offered by community colleges, better explain the variation in student outcomes.

“On balance, we find that demographics are not destiny for program-level outcomes in the community college sector,” the report says.

The authors of the report examined postcollege earnings and loan repayment data of community college students in certificate and associate degree programs at more than 1,200 institutions. They tried to determine aspects of the programs related to student performance in the labor market and which of those factors are within a community college’s control.

Ascertaining the influence of those factors may become a high priority for community colleges if the Biden administration restores an Obama-era policy known as the gainful-employment rule and requires community colleges to adhere to it. The rule held career training programs accountable for the level of student loan debt held by graduates of those programs relative to their discretionary incomes.

Lesley Turner, a co-author of the report and associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, noted that the last iteration of the gainful-employment rule included nondegree programs, such as certificate programs, at public institutions, and nearly all programs at for-profit colleges. She said it's an “open question” whether community college programs should be subject to a new gainful-employment rule.

There's increasing public appetite for college accountability measures, but community college programs are a “complicated” case because factors such as the strength of local labor markets and the kinds of students the colleges serve also play a role in postcollege outcomes, said co-author Cody Christensen, a doctoral student in the leadership, policy and organizations department at Vanderbilt.

“It’s really complicated in the case of community colleges, because we ask community colleges to do two things: we ask them to be open access and we ask them to sort of either train students for a job or train them to transfer to a four-year school,” he said. “And oftentimes those goals are in tension, because being open access means you have to serve whatever students show up at your door, and sometimes those students are a harder population just to serve in general.”

The report found that community college programs that enrolled more students of color had worse outcomes for earnings and loan repayment three years after those students left college than less diverse programs. A 10-percentage-point increase in the share of underrepresented minority students in a certificate program meant a typical student’s annual net earnings were $120 lower. That same increase in the share of minority students in associate degree programs corresponded to a typical student having $540 less in annual net earnings. Meanwhile, a 10-percentage-point increase in minority students in a community college program meant a 1.1 percentage point lower share of that cohort’s loan balance was repaid after three years.

“We know that there are reasons why students from different demographic groups may earn less than white students -- discrimination, different opportunities in the labor market -- and the last thing a system of incentives or penalties should do is punish schools and programs for serving these students,” Turner said.

However, the report also found that demographics weren’t the best explanation for the variation in student outcomes across programs. Outcomes differed widely based on field of study. Associate degrees in fields such as education and communications technology, for example, yielded significantly lower net earnings than skilled trades programs such as construction or an engineering degree. When researchers controlled for differences in fields of study, a higher share of Black and Latinx students in an associate degree program correlated with higher net earnings.

The report found that colleges that enroll more students from underrepresented backgrounds offer fewer programs in the fields that lead to higher postcollege earnings. At community colleges with the most underrepresented students, only 16 percent of programs are in fields of study with the highest net earnings, compared to almost a quarter of programs at community colleges with the fewest underrepresented students. The report argues there are plenty of levers community college leaders do control, such as adjusting program offerings, that appear connected to better student outcomes.

Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor of college finance and facilities planning for the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, said the report shows “community colleges do have control over some very important factors that lead to economic success and economic mobility for students.” She believes California’s student-centered funding formula, enacted in 2018 but going into full effect in 2024, was built on a similar premise. It bases state funding to community college districts on a number of factors other than enrollment, including the number of former students earning a living wage.

“It’s important to have metrics that are aligned with your goals,” she said.

Christensen said a practical message the report gives community college leaders is that the mixture of programs “you offer really does matter, and if you have flexibility to add programs, or if there’s a demand to expand programs where earnings are higher, the student outcomes might be better off for it.”

More state funding would help community colleges invest in programs that yield higher-paying jobs, Turner added. She noted that programs in STEM fields, for example, can be more expensive for community colleges to offer because courses require specialized equipment.

Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, believes some community colleges have a dearth of programs with pathways to higher-paying careers -- and supports to steer students toward them.

“You really need to take a look at your programs and how you help or don’t help students get into a program that gets them a good job or at least a job in a field that they want,” he said. While colleges wrestle with some factors beyond their control, college leaders should “take a much closer look” at student outcomes, he said.

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A new partnership supports 28 HBCUs

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Twenty-eight historically Black colleges and universities have joined an initiative to "scale experiential learning and leadership development" across their campuses and help students prepare for future careers and achieve economic success.

The initiative, which was announced today, is the result of a partnership between the HBCUs and the Strada Education Network, a nonprofit organization focused on student economic mobility. Strada will invest $25 million to create a scholarship program across the HBCU campuses and bolster the institutions’ existing support services for student interns and leadership-development programming for students.

Students attend HBCUs because "they’re really trying to change their life trajectory," said Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University and a member of the project’s advisory council. Students need access to an affordable education, he said, they need "honest conversations with folks you want to become" through professional networking opportunities, and "expertise that’s going to distinguish you in the marketplace" -- all of which he believes the partnership with Strada will provide.

The launch of the initiative follows a yearlong "listening tour" and discussions between Strada staff and HBCU leaders across the country about the career readiness and leadership opportunities on their campuses, the needs of their students, and how the organization could help. About a third of the nation’s HBCUs participated in the conversations, said Daryl A. Graham, Strada’s senior vice president of philanthropy.

As a part of the partnership, each HBCU will select three students every year for four years -- a total of 12 students at each institution over the course of the initiative -- to serve as Strada Scholars. Each scholar will receive a $7,000 annual tuition scholarship, and each institution will receive a certain amount of funds per student -- $1,200 to offer internship supports and $1,200 to offer leadership-development resources, at HBCU leaders’ discretion.

“We hope to expand this work with an even broader cohort of institutions in years to come,” Marshall Grigsby, Strada trustee and co-chair of the advisory council, said in a press release.

Graham said an advisory council of seven current and former HBCU leaders, formed in May, guided plans for the funding.

“Just because they’re HBCUs, I think the biggest thing people assume is that they’re all the same,” said Graham, an alumnus of Morgan State University. “The things that are important to them may be the same, but the way in which it happens, the culture on campus, the way in which they helped the student to be fully supported in many ways, is sometimes different. What we didn’t want to do -- and what we don’t ever want to do -- is to tell them how to do it … They’ve been around for over 100 years.”

Allen noted that HBCUs serve a disproportionate number of first-generation college students, who often don’t have professional connections in the corporate world that could lead to networking opportunities, which makes the need for HBCUs to offer robust career preparation services and supports even more important.

These students are also often "first-generation corporate," with little experience or family history in the corporate world, he said.

Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina and a member of the advisory council, pointed out that the partnership also gives HBCUs “wide latitude” in how they use the funding. For example, she’s considering offering scholarship recipients stipends to pay for professional attire and transportation for their internships. She noted that 84 percent of Benedict College students could not afford college without the federal Pell Grant and are unlikely to have closets full of work clothes.

She also highlighted that one of the unique aspects of the scholarship component of the program is its 3.3 GPA requirement.

Many scholarships only focus on students with the highest grades, rather than “high-potential, high-capacity students who just need a little bit of help to realize their greatest dreams academically and otherwise,” Artis said. “The assumption that only the top students are worth the investment really is a fallacy in many respects.”

Another crucial component of the initiative is funds for administrative support, said Graham. He noted that HBCU leaders know what programs and projects would benefit their students and prepare them for leadership opportunities and careers, but the institutions often lack the capacity to implement them.

Philanthropists have lately showered new attention and funds on HBCUs since nationwide protests erupted last summer after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Artis said the outpouring of financial support was the “confluence” of a number of key moments, including Black Lives Matter protests, measures to support HBCUs under the Trump administration -- such as the passing of the Future Act, which secured long-term federal funding for the institutions -- and the election of Howard University alumna Kamala Harris as vice president.

HBCU leaders appreciate the funding -- “we take all checks,” Allen said -- but he also doesn’t know “how long that window is going to be open.” He noted that many of these donations have been one-time cash infusions without an ongoing relationship with the institutions.

He believes the Strada partnership is different because “they’re playing long ball.”

“They listened,” he said. “They didn’t just figure out some things had happened with regard to race and civil unrest in America and write a check. They actually took a year, talked to me and my colleagues across the country, really wanting to understand the HBCU experience. Instead of simply saying, ‘Here’s a check,’ they said, ‘Here’s a partnership.’ I feel like they’re going to be with us as we go through this process, meaning we will learn together, we will correct ourselves along the way and we’ll create unique opportunities.”

The partnership will also include an annual convening for HBCU presidents to share best practices, and Allen hopes there also will be opportunities for students to network with each other.

Graham emphasized that the goal of the partnership isn’t just to support a cohort of students but to effect multigenerational change for Black students and their families.

“The framework for Strada Scholars isn’t about just one person,” he said. “It’s about all of us. If all of us can work together to make a better pathway for students to be developed, to be mentored, to be coached, to be empowered, we will live in a better society than we do right now.”

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Contra Costa chancellor reinstated after placed on leave

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The governing board of the Contra Costa Community College District in California reinstated Chancellor Bryan Reece last Thursday after putting him on administrative leave with pay two weeks ago.

The decision to allow Reece to return came after a lengthy special governing board meeting -- where Reece urged the board to reconsider, and faculty and community members made impassioned pleas on his behalf -- followed by a closed board session that lasted over five hours until just after midnight. Three out of five board members voted in favor of the chancellor's reinstatement.

Reece was put on administrative leave on Sept. 14, less than a year into his chancellorship. Andy Li, the board president, said at the time in an email to the campus that the decision was based on "personnel matters" but did not give further explanation.

"There was information the governing board has reviewed that indicated that it was in the best interest of everybody involved that the chancellor be separated from his regular activities as chancellor of this district to ensure a fair and thorough investigation of this personnel matter," Timothy Leong, the district's director of communications and community relations, said prior to the chancellor's reinstatement. He noted that the investigation is ongoing.

Reece told the board during the public comment portion of the special meeting that the district's investigation procedures have been "widely acknowledged as flawed" with unclear policies. He said he suspected a lawyer advised them to keep him on administrative leave, and board members are entitled to a "second opinion."

"Don't forget, your constituents put you in charge," he told the board. "Don't ever give that away."

Larry Ladd, a senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said in general, such a "quick turnaround" for reinstating a campus leader from administrative leave is "unusual." Administrative leaves usually happen when there's a suspected "case of dereliction of duty or unethical conduct -- and it would be a case where you investigate and conclude whether there's justification for further action or not."

It remains unclear why Reece was placed on leave, but rumors swirled about the polarizing decision.

Reece is a first-time chancellor -- he started on Nov. 1, 2020 -- presiding over a district of three colleges in Northern California: Contra Costa, Los Medanos and Diablo Valley community colleges, which together serve more than 50,000 students.

Some faculty and staff members questioned the process by which he was hired, because the other final candidates dropped out of the running before the board made a decision, leaving Reece as the only option unless the board chose to restart the search process.

He was fired from his previous position as the president of Norco College in Riverside, California in June 2019, despite dissent from faculty, staff, and students. More than 700 people called for his reinstatement in an online petition protesting the decision by the Riverside Community College District Board of Trustees. The board did not publicly give a reason for his dismissal.

A group of Norco College faculty members sent a letter of support for Reece to the Contra Costa Community College District governing board. The letter described Reece as an "exceptional leader."

"He was dedicated to social change, which involved him dismantling old systems of power that no longer serve the institution or its constituents," the letter reads. " … While our faculty were never given an adequate reason for his dismissal, many of us feel it was due to an internal power struggle between an old and a new way of envisioning college leadership roles."

Some of Reece's defenders at the board meeting last week described him as a new leader lacking in experience at the helm of a district plagued by rampant investigations and complaints, high administrative turnover at the college and district levels, and the unpredictable challenges of a pandemic.

Donna Wapner, a health science professor at Diablo Valley and former faculty union president for the district, described Reece as a "new chancellor who needed support."

"We knew that," she told the board. "I think all of you on the governing board said that when you were hiring someone for a three-college district who had never been a chancellor before."

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, which represents campus leaders in the state community college system, said new chancellors often struggle to manage board dynamics and a college district's "particular history and nuances and issues," especially if board votes are often split.

Jeffrey Michels, executive director of the district's faculty union, said while Reece came into the position in an "odd way," Michels was inspired by the chancellor's focus on social justice issues in higher ed and closing equity gaps.

Several leaders from local branches of the NAACP spoke in favor of Reece's reinstatement and praised him for creating advisory councils of Black, Latinx and Asian American and Pacific Islander community members.

Contra Costa College is particularly diverse, with a student body that's 46 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black and 14 percent Asian.

Reece is "looking through a different lens as to how we break down this barrier of access and inclusion" in a district "now more Black and brown in terms of students than it is white," said Willie Robinson, president of the Richmond California branch of the NAACP. Robinson served on the screening committee that selected Reece as one of the final candidates for chancellor.

Some district employee have a different view of Reece.

Neal Skapura, president of the district's classified staff union, AFSCME Local 1, said some of the chancellor's recent actions felt untrustworthy.

The Titan Group, an outside investigator hired by the district's human resources office, accused Reece of interfering in a probe into possible misconduct by a college employee. According to the investigator's June memo to the board, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the district's complaint hotline received an allegation that an instructor paid students to enroll in his classes and then allowed them to drop the classes after census day when colleges take a formal count of enrollment numbers​. Reece assured the employee in text messages, images of which were included in the memo, that he would shut down the investigation. It also alleges Reece put the chief human resource officer on administrative leave after he spoke up about the "unethical actions Chancellor Reece was proposing."

"As a contracted vendor that has worked with this college for years, I am shocked by Chancellor Reece's antics, improper behavior, lack of ethics, and poor judgment," Ed Saucerman, president and owner of the Titan Group, wrote in the memo. " … This behavior by Chancellor Reece is unprecedented and calls for a full-fledged investigation into his actions and relationship with an employee facing several allegations of misconduct."

Saucerman declined a request to discuss the report but said the group has worked with the district for at least nine years.

Michels said Reece made the decision to halt the investigation with his support and "in dialogue with union leadership." He believes the investigation into the instructor was further proof of a culture of weaponizing complaints within the district.

Another source of conflict was the chancellor's enrollment recovery plan, which would spend up to $10 million over the course of three years on marketing to students with a goal of increasing enrollment by 15,000 students. The district's student headcount fell to 31,058 from 34,201 students, a 9.2 percent drop, from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Community colleges nationwide experienced enrollment declines during that same period with particularly steep drops across California 116 community college system.

Leong noted that a new state funding formula for community college districts, which goes into effect in the 2024-2025 academic year, will base a significant portion of the funding on student success metrics and other factors. That means funding levels will be more difficult to predict.

The shift is a "big, big deal," Leong said. "I think that what we came up with is a comprehensive plan that I believe is a smart, visionary way of approaching this dilemma that we're facing."

However, Skapura said he and others raised concerns that up to $10 million was an exorbitant and "unprecedented" amount for a community college to spend on marketing.

"We all came to the same to the same conclusion -- we're flushing money away on this stupid thing," he said.

Skapura also believes Reece behaved unethically in the planning process. VisionPoint, one of the firms hired to help outline the marketing plan, was allowed to bid on the contract to implement it, a decision some administrators advised against. Reece recused himself from the selection process to address potential legal concerns and VisionPoint was ultimately chosen in April. The board reversed course in May and rescinded the contract after seeking additional legal counsel.

Nonetheless, "at that point, the whole thing looks tainted," Skapura said.

Michels believes this incident​ with the marketing firm may have landed Reece on administrative leave but "if it was the wrong thing to do, I think he made the mistake innocently." He believes there was "nothing corrupt about the process."

The district was already embroiled in conflict before this latest debacle. The governing board did not extend the contracts of the chief financial officer, the chief human resources officer and the executive vice chancellor of administrative services, who served as interim chancellor at the time, last year to the consternation of staff and faculty union leaders. All three have sued the district, according to Skapura.

The chief financial officer, Jonah Nicholas, left the district for another job, according to Skapura. The two other administrators remained until the end of their contracts but have since been put on paid administrative leave without explanation. Dio Shipp, the associate vice chancellor and chief human resource officer, was put on administrative leave in June and Eugene Huff, executive vice chancellor of administrative services, was put on administrative leave in August.

Meanwhile, two of the board members who voted not to renew the contracts, Vicki Gordon and Greg Enholm, were separately found to have committed ethics violations, including putting undue pressure on administrators and harassing fellow board members, and were not re-elected in November 2020.

Michels told the board that placing Reece and other senior administrators on administrative leave has been "distracting and destabilizing."

"We are spending an enormous amount of time in this district putting out fires that we are lighting ourselves," Michels said. "I'm a professor. I want to work on student issues. I work for the union to make it easier for my professors to teach and create learning conditions and teaching conditions that are ideal. And I can't do that if there's nobody at the district office to be a partner in negotiations and problem solving."

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Two-year colleges ramp up community outreach efforts

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Wallace State Community College in Alabama plans to create a community learning center in Arley, a town of approximately 330 people in Winston County, about 45 minutes from the campus.

College administrators spent years reaching out to residents of the county, which Vicki Karolewics, president of the college, described as “extremely rural” with “significant poverty,” but the pandemic intensified that goal as students struggled with remote learning. Even with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots provided by the college, she said some students were left trying to complete their assignments on their phones because of poor internet access.

Karolewics said the pandemic exacerbated “a long-standing challenge” that demanded “a local solution.”

The focus of the center “will be to place a resident of Winston County who seeks our services … to place them on a career path … at the moment they come in the door.”

Wallace State is among the many community colleges across the country ramping up their outreach beyond the campus in the wake of the pandemic. The institutions are offering classes and programs, academic help, and a variety of support services for community members at off-campus locations. Battered by enrollment declines and lost academic momentum among low-income students weighed down with fresh financial burdens brought on by the pandemic, the colleges are redoubling their efforts to offer community-based opportunities to help current students -- especially adult learners juggling classes alongside work and childcare responsibilities -- to continue their education. The colleges are also using the outreach to encourage other residents to enroll and get new work skills, credentials or degrees.

Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization focused on community college student success, said community college leaders have always focused attention and resources on the needs of their surrounding communities, especially during times of crisis, whether that’s natural disasters or economic downturns. Nonetheless, she sees a “renewed” commitment from colleges to building infrastructure for community outreach.

“It’s always the same members of our communities that are hurt the most,” she said. “It’s those who are marginalized, who have the least resources to respond. So, we reach out and try to support our citizens with services where they are, which end up being community centers, boys’ and girls’ clubs, public libraries, all types of community-based nonprofit organizations that are located in our communities. I do see an acceleration of those types of outreach activities happening now.”

Karolewics hopes Wallace State’s community learning center, which will open in January 2022 with eight classrooms and computer labs, will connect students and residents to campus services. Residents can come to the center to study, take workforce training or dual-enrollment classes and complete the online portions of hybrid courses in the computer labs, saving them time-consuming commutes to campus and searches for reliable Wi-Fi. Adult education and enrollment services staff members will be on the premises to answer questions from students and community members. The Arley Town Council will lease a 4.2-acre property to the college for a dollar per year.

Community College of Beaver County, outside Pittsburgh, is also working with local libraries to bring classes off campus. The college will launch two CCBC Community Classrooms in October at two libraries in nearby neighborhoods where many students live. Plans are in the works to add another library in 2022. First-year students can take their freshman orientation and introductory writing courses at the community classrooms, with on-site childcare for students with children provided by the college. Community members can also enroll in noncredit courses in basic computer skills, résumé writing and other subjects.

Anitre Bell, the college’s community liaison and assistant director of outreach, said the pandemic inspired the community classroom initiative, because the crisis forced administrators to be even more aware of the barriers students face.

“Maybe it’s transportation, maybe it’s affordability, maybe it’s childcare,” she said. “I firmly believe that we have to meet people where they are, and based on the pandemic, things have changed, so we have to find ways to supply those resources for others.”

Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., opened an aviation education center this summer at the Hudson Valley Regional Airport for students enrolled in pilot, aviation management and aviation maintenance technician programs. It also launched a new satellite facility in the town of Fishkill, located on a convenient roadway for commuters and equipped with classrooms, computer labs and student lounges. Students can take a variety of courses at the new location.

“It is my sincere hope that this facility, with its superb classrooms and labs, easily accessible location, and welcoming and open learning spaces, will provide our students -- the next generation of pioneers -- the space and support they are going to need as they marshal the resources of education, technology and human ingenuity to forge new solutions for the market challenges they will face,” Ellen Gambino, the acting president of Dutchess Community College, said of the Fishkill facility in a news release.

Stout, of Achieving the Dream, said these community outreach efforts serve as “portals for recruitment” during a time when community college enrollments continue to drop. Community colleges experienced a decrease of about 10 percent in enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020 and a similar drop in spring 2021, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.

“They are being used for recruitment -- there’s no doubt about that,” she said.

She noted that community-based academic offerings and support services also help potential students feel more connected to their local colleges, introducing them to campus resources in places that may feel more comfortable and familiar.

“These community places are really important because so many of our students don’t have a sense of identity as a college student and a college campus is a strange environment, but they may have been visiting a public library since they were children,” she said. “There’s a different type of identity and sense of belonging, and if we’re able to meet prospective students in that environment, we can create a stronger sense of connection to the college.”

Bell also sees community classrooms as a recruitment and retention tool for Community College of Beaver County. Enrollment at the college fell to 1,713 students in fall 2020 from 2,149 students in fall 2019, a loss of 436 students. She said the “flexibility and convenience” of off-campus courses will be a draw for students.

Victor Moreno, community outreach manager at Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey, said the college’s community initiatives aren’t intended to boost enrollment but have attracted interest in the college from Atlantic City residents. The institution recently received a $50,000 Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Planning grant from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which the college will use to partner with residents to create a neighborhood improvement plan along Atlantic City’s Absecon Inlet, a tourist industry hub where some students and their families live.

The neighborhood improvement idea preceded the pandemic, but the college also offered a host of new services to members of the broader community as a result of the public health emergency, including an information session for DACA students and residents, a two-day event with representatives of the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia to help local Mexican nationals secure updated passports and consular identification, and hot meals from the college’s academy of culinary arts for unhoused people in the area.

Moreno believes recruitment and community outreach “kind of walk hand in hand.”

“Sometimes I’m there just to serve the community … but someone may come up and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking to re-enroll,’ or ‘I didn’t know you were offering free workforce training to Atlantic City residents that are unemployed or underemployed or casino employees,’” he said. “I’m already there to provide that information and meet their needs.”

Karolewics, of Wallace State, said she hopes her college’s community center can have long-lasting effects on not just residents but generations of residents in the surrounding area.

“My goal is to have a more educated citizenry and a highly developed talent pipeline who are ready for high-paying jobs that lead to intergenerational change,” she said. “Because we want to lift people out of poverty and have a more literate society.”

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College leaders seek to boost enrollment of Black men

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Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago enrolled about 150 first-year students this fall. Only 11 of them were Black men, in a city that’s almost 30 percent African American, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Administrators across the country want to know “where are the men, and where are all the Black men?” said Thomas Neitzke, dean of Arrupe College.

Higher education leaders are investing in a spate of initiatives to enroll and retain Black male students, who continue to stop out at high rates.

Men over all experienced an enrollment decline twice as steep as women during the pandemic. Total male undergraduate enrollment fell by 8.9 percent in spring 2021 compared to the previous spring, while female enrollment dropped 4 percent, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Men of color enrolled at particularly low rates amid a pandemic in which Black students and their families disproportionately suffered from infections, job loss and financial strains. Enrollment for Black men dropped 14.3 percent in spring 2021 compared to the previous spring, while enrollment for Black women fell 6.9 percent over the same time period. Community colleges, which faced the sharpest enrollment declines over all, lost Black men in droves; the number of Black male students enrolled in public two-year institutions plunged 21.5 percent.

“Obviously, when we look at the data, we know that we are losing our Black males at an alarming rate,” said Boyd Copeland, vice president of multicultural student services at St. Louis Community College Forest Park. “We want all of our students to be successful. We can’t allow our Black males to continue to come in here and fail out.”

The college launched the Black Male Achievers Academy this June, a six-week summer program for a cohort of Black male students designed to help them make a smooth transition to campus life, meet faculty and staff members, and accumulate some class credits ahead of the fall. Participants took at least two summer classes -- a reading course and a social science course -- and the program covers up to $3,000 of tuition over two years. So far, 39 students completed the summer program and enrolled this fall. The institution also plans to hire a student retention coordinator for the program in October to focus on wraparound supports for Black men.

“We’re just trying to keep our hands, our arms, wrapped around them and see if we can get them through,” Copeland said.

Other higher education institutions are also looking to bring on new staff specifically dedicated to recruiting and retaining men of color.

Arrupe College plans to use part of a $1.5 million grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to add a retention specialist to its Black Men for Success initiative, a mentorship program for Black male students founded in 2016.

Neitzke said it was heard “loud and clear” that the institution needed someone dedicated to retaining Black male students, in addition to making new investments in their recruitment. He believes the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd last summer brought a new awareness among college and university leaders that these students require specialized supports.

“I think it just renewed in institutions a new commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across the board,” he said. “I think most universities looked at their numbers and said, ‘Here’s an area where we’re deficient.’”

He noted that the Jesuit community college’s model includes a bounty of supports -- free breakfast and lunch, laptops, and transportation to and from campus -- and still the institution struggles to enroll Black men.

Compton College, south of downtown Los Angeles, plans to hire a “director of Black and males of color success” this October, using federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the first two years of the position. The number of Black men enrolled at the college dropped to 662 from 919 students in fall 2020 compared to the previous fall, a loss of 257 students. Their retention rate was 74 percent, and their success rate -- students receiving a passing grade or higher -- was 57 percent.

The new director will be responsible for providing resources for male students from underrepresented backgrounds across academic fields, as well as professional development for faculty and staff members on how best to support men of color.

Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton, said COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan provided his college with an opportunity to invest in the needs of these students long term.

“Budgets are statements of values,” he said. “If you really want see more Black men be successful, what are you going to do about it? My position was, what I want to do about it is I want to commit funds to it. Hiring a permanent position was the best way for us to go.”

However, he and others noted that shrinking enrollment and low retention rates for Black men aren’t new. An analysis of 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data from the Education Trust found that nationally only 26.5 percent of Black men held a college degree, compared to 44.3 percent of white men.

“This feels to me like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back story,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center. “There’s a real desperation amongst all of us to return to normal. The pandemic has been most abnormal … We should not return to normal as it pertains to recruitment and admissions practices, because normal was inequitable. Normal failed to deliver to us the kind of diversity we all say we want at our colleges and universities.”

Harper said a “complex cocktail of social forces” has held Black men back, including a dearth of Black male teachers in K-12 schools to encourage students to attend college and to serve as role models.

He noted that colleges and universities have put “tremendous effort, attention and resources” into initiatives focused on Black men since 2005. He highlighted President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, launched in 2014 and focused on opportunity gaps for young men of color. Progress, however, has been “stagnant” at best in recent years, he said.

Higher education leaders should respond to the most current enrollment declines among Black men with “tremendous concern -- and robust, multidimensional strategies,” he said. “When the data tell us that we have a problem that is racialized and gendered, the solutions to that problem have to be racialized and gendered.”

Curry said a rash of campus recruitment and retention initiatives targeting these students can’t make up for the thousands of Black male students who fall through the cracks. He wants to see more systemic institutional changes that lead to “whole-school transformation.”

“We can no longer have programs that are just for 30 to 60 or 90 students,” he said. “We miss the target when we say, ‘Oh, we have 30, or we have 60, Black students who are successful.’ But I’ve got another 1,500 … that are not. Let’s focus in on why that other 1,500 did not make it. That’s when we start to see transformation -- when we start having those types of conversations.”

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Community college leaders celebrate first lady’s return

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Jill Biden returned to in-person teaching at Northern Virginia Community College this fall. The first lady, an English and writing professor, taught online last semester and spoke widely and publicly about her eagerness to come back to the classroom.

“I hope you’re as excited as I am for those clean whiteboards, the freshly waxed floors and, best of all, the bright faces of our students -- in person,” Biden said in a speech at Waipahu High School near Honolulu in late July.

With her return to the classroom, Biden is the first in her role to hold a full-time job alongside her White House responsibilities. Community college leaders and educators widely celebrated the move as yet another sign the first lady will be an advocate for their institutions in the highest echelons of government. Many supporters of community colleges also see Biden's visibility and advocacy as a part of a broader national spotlight moment for community colleges at a time when they are getting renewed attention for offering affordable options for higher education and job training and opening new paths to social mobility.

Biden is also credited for drawing support for community colleges among congressional lawmakers.

“I don’t think it’s so much a sea change in terms of what we do but how aware people are of what we do,” said Colorado Community College System chancellor Joe Garcia. “We know that community colleges are a great resource for a lot of people, but we are often overlooked as a high-quality, affordable and accessible option, and I think anything we can do nationally to raise more awareness about community colleges is great, and certainly Dr. Biden helps do that.”

Mark T. Brainard, president of Delaware Technical Community College, where Biden began her college teaching career in 1993, described President Joe Biden and the first lady as “lifelong advocates” for community colleges.

“To have that pulpit and to be such an articulate and forceful voice in advocating for community colleges and our students can’t be dismissed,” he said. “It’s definitely driving not just the attention but the positive attention that community colleges are receiving today.”

Jill Biden has a long history of working in and promoting community colleges. She did her doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware on student retention at Delaware Technical Community College. She started teaching at Northern Virginia Community College in 2009, during her husband’s vice presidency, and she hosted the first White House Summit on Community Colleges with President Barack Obama the following year.

“Community colleges are uniquely American -- places where anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to realizing the American dream,” she said in her remarks at the summit.

As for college faculty members across the country, teaching will be different for Biden this academic year. She will have to wear a mask in the classroom this semester and take other safety precautions due to the pandemic. Unlike her colleagues, she will commute to the campus from the White House, accompanied by a U.S. Secret Service motorcade.

Claudia Schrader, president of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y., is hopeful Biden’s decision to teach in person will help community colleges make a comeback after a difficult year and signal “that we’re making more strides in our recovery.”

“Her returning to the classroom means that we’re in recovery mode and community colleges will be able to bounce back,” Schrader said.

Community college students in particular experienced high job losses or reduced wages related to the pandemic, and many dropped out as a result. Others who remained in college struggled with childcare or work responsibilities, tended to family members sick with COVID-19 or coped with their deaths, all while dealing with the challenges of remote learning. Enrollment at community colleges plummeted by about 10 percent on average from fall 2019 to fall 2020, with a similar plunge in spring 2021, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Most community colleges continue to experience enrollment declines this fall.

Kingsborough was among the colleges that lost students. More than half of its students are eligible for federal financial aid through Pell Grants. Total enrollment for full-time and part-time Kingsborough students dropped from 15,433 in fall 2019 to 15,284 in fall 2020. Schrader said enrollment this semester fell at least another 4 percent compared to last fall.

She believes Biden’s presence in the national spotlight can inspire more high school students to consider two-year institutions as an option and perhaps reach students who hadn’t considered college at all.

Community colleges more broadly seem to be shedding some of the stigma of being considered by some as second-rate institutions and are commanding more respect from lawmakers as vehicles of economic mobility and providers of workforce training, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. She credits Biden’s advocacy in part but noted that an ongoing policy conversation about student loan debt also brought attention to community colleges as low-cost pathways to universities and job training.

“There’s a recognition for who we serve and how we serve them and what that means for America’s middle class,” she said. “Community college is now being looked at as opportunity rather than as the second choice, as it were.”

Brainard noted that community colleges tend to draw extra attention from business leaders and lawmakers “at any time of economic disruption or uncertainty,” and a pandemic certainly qualifies.

Community colleges are also at the center of current national policy discussions. President Biden included two years of free community college in his American Families Plan in April, and the proposal remains a key piece of the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion piece of legislation currently being hammered out in Congress.

Jill Biden has previously been an outspoken advocate of tuition-free college but has recently been criticized by some proponents for being quiet on the issue as of late, according to Politico.

Some believe Biden’s recent silence is a sign that the administration is willing to give up on the tuition-free college plan as the legislation gets increasingly bogged down in politics in Congress.

Before a visit last week to the Des Moines Area Community College, where she promoted the Build Back Better plan, Biden had not attended any free community college promotion events since May, Politico reported. But plans are in the works for her to resume traveling to community colleges for events in coming weeks, including to Michigan this week with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the news outlet reported.

“The best use of the First Lady’s time is to make the public case for community college, which is what she’s been doing for the last 12 years,” her spokesperson Michael LaRosa said in a statement, Politico reported. “In fact, her work raising awareness about America’s best kept secret is a big reason why free community college is in the Build Back Better legislative package today.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and philanthropists have recently heaped praise -- and cash -- on community colleges. Higher education institutions, including community colleges, have received about $69 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds since the pandemic began, which allowed community colleges to offer all kinds of financial help to students, such as free laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots and emergency grants, and enabled some colleges to forgive thousands of dollars in student debts to their institutions.

Brainard said the relief funds given to his college, a total of $62.6 million, not only helped students weather the crisis but allowed administrators to make new investments in technology that will be “game changers” going forward. The college now has the infrastructure for hybrid education in classes, labs and workforce training programs.

“Those investments will pay off for many, many years to come,” he said.

In addition to the federal funds, some community colleges also benefited from a recent spate of philanthropic largess that was once rare for two-year institutions. Some received record-breaking donations from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who doled out billions of dollars to historically underresourced two- and four-year colleges that serve large numbers of first-generation college students and those from low-income families. For example, Amarillo College in Texas received $15 million, the largest donation in its history.

Geoff Green, president of the Network for California Community Colleges Foundations and CEO of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, said gifts like Scott’s indicate the continuation of a trend of philanthropists realizing their “dollars go further at a community college” in serving the most marginalized students.

The Santa Barbara City College Foundation, which received $20 million from Scott, is the wealthiest community college foundation in the state, with over $90 million in assets, but “if you lay that alongside any four-year institution, even a small four-year institution, that doesn’t seem like a large asset base,” Green noted.

Nonetheless, he said donors “recognized the challenge” posed by the pandemic. He noted that the Great Recession of 2007-08, another moment of crisis, yielded a “massive spike” in community college enrollment and a blossoming of the movement to make community college tuition-free.

“Every time I hear a story about Jill Biden doing anything with community colleges, it makes me happy, certainly,” Green said. “Because I know that that will get the attention of folks who may or may not have been watching” and encourage alumni giving to community colleges.

College faculty members appreciate Biden for representing them in other ways. They see their own mixed emotions, their excitement and anxieties about teaching during the pandemic reflected in Biden’s transition back to in-person teaching.

Biden has spoken publicly about how she learned to use online tools and changed her instruction strategies to teach students during the pandemic, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, a labor union whose membership includes about 150,000 higher education instructors, including Biden. She believes Biden’s experiences during the pandemic make her not only relatable to educators but an ideal policy advocate for them with both the president and Secretary Cardona.

“She is experiencing what educators all over this country are experiencing,” Pringle said. “And for her to be able to experience and articulate that not only elevates the profession but puts a face that everyone knows, a real person who is having those experiences, in a position to be able to talk about it from her position of power.”

Janet Eber, chair of the English department at County College of Morris in New Jersey for almost 40 years, said she also hopes Biden’s return to the classroom raises the profile of English as a discipline at community colleges and signals the importance of the liberal arts. Community college leaders have shifted some of their resources and attention to workforce development to meet local labor demands and help spur economic development and pandemic recovery, she said.

While Eber believes job training is important, “the world still needs artists, it needs musicians, it needs those professions that feed the mind and the soul, and sometimes students don’t have the money to go anyplace else,” she said. To her, Biden’s work sends that message.

“Teaching is a way of life,” she said. “It never leaves you. If you’re really a teacher, you get it the first day you walk into a classroom and it stays with you the rest of your life. It just does. And that she’s gone back at this point in her life tells me she sees it the same way.”

Community Colleges
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