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More state oversight needed for community colleges, report finds

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Several bills introduced in the last few years have tried – unsuccessfully – to reform the California Community Colleges system by changing its funding formula or its governance structure.

Now, the Little Hoover Commission – an independent state oversight agency that investigates state government and follows through with legislation on its recommendations – has renewed the call for such changes, describing the sprawling system as "starved of essential leadership in Sacramento" needed to navigate a current crisis and lead toward a brighter future.

The commission spent a year studying the community college system and voted 7-1 on a final report. The group's most high-profile recommendation calls for community colleges to take over the task of running the state's adult basic education programs, the bulk of which are currently operated by K-12 school districts.

But the commission also zeroed in on key governance changes it says are critical. At present, thousands of students who want degrees or certificates leave the system without them, and thousands more are unable to get into the classes they need.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office should be given more authority and autonomy to oversee and coordinate the 72 college districts and 112 colleges spread across the state, the Feb. 28 report from the Little Hoover Commission said.

The report also calls for the Legislature to change the community colleges' funding formula so that it rewards colleges for getting students to advance to the next class, complete a certificate or transfer to a four-year university – rather than rewarding them for the number of students enrolled in the first few weeks of class, as under the current system.

In part because the community colleges grew out of the K-12 system, they are set up in 72 autonomous districts run by locally elected trustees. The chancellor's office in Sacramento provides policy direction for, but lacks real authority to change, the way the districts operate, the report said.

Regulations adopted by the Board of Governors often are written in a way that gives districts permission to take certain actions, rather than requiring them to do so. The governor, not the chancellor, appoints the chancellor's executive cabinet members. And while the chancellor's office can monitor districts' compliance with reporting requirements, it cannot enforce compliance.

California's governance structure "simply prevents the chancellor from being a chancellor," David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, told the panel.

The chancellor's office sponsored 2010 legislation, AB 2109, to remove the designation of the community colleges as a state agency, giving the chancellor's office more flexibility in hiring executive staff. But the bill never was heard in the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Lawmakers also have introduced bills to change the way the colleges are funded, without success. Under current regulations, the Legislature allocates money to the community colleges by splitting a pool of money guaranteed to the colleges and K-12 schools under Proposition 98. Then, the chancellor's office distributes the money to districts based on a formula tied to the number of students who are enrolled in classes in the third week of the term.

The commission, like several other critics of the funding structure, said it rewards colleges for maintaining or increasing the enrollment of students early on in the term, without financial consequences when students drop after the third week. 

This creates an opportunity cost – both for the students who dropped out and for students who couldn't get a seat in the class because it was full, the report said. And it's inefficient: Although California spends relatively little per community college student, the state pays 30 percent more per degree and 40 percent more per completion than the national average.

AB 2542, introduced in 2010, would have set up a pilot program for five colleges. The schools would have gotten greater flexibility in how they could spend their money in exchange for volunteering to receive funding based on course completions.

SB 1143, as it originally was introduced, would have based community college funding not just on the number of students enrolled in the beginning of the term, but also the number who complete the course.

While AB 2542 faced intense resistance and failed to pass out of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, SB 1143 was rewritten to scrap the performance funding mandate and instead establish the Student Success Task Force.

The task force unveiled a slate of recommendations in 2011, but it stopped short of advocating a significant change to the funding structure. The Little Hoover report recommends that the state use a portion of state funding to reward colleges that increase completions, degrees and other milestones. The panel said the formula should be weighted to ensure that colleges continue to serve disadvantaged populations and don't "cream" the best students.

Still, the commission did not get into the details of what such a formula would look like – details that have been a stumbling block for previous efforts to establish performance-based funding.

Eloy Oakley, president of the Long Beach Community College District, said the report did a good job of distilling the challenges the college system faces, and he agreed that the funding model needs to change.

"It’s time to look at the funding model differently – not in a radically different way, but as we’ve funded access, we also have to look at ways to incentivize increased completion," Oakley said.

He thinks the current level of funding for the colleges shouldn't change overnight. But future funding should be allocated differently.

"As new money comes into the system, we would treat equally funding for growth and include funding for increased completion across all the demographic groups a college serves," he said.

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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