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Task force unlikely to push new community college funding

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A task force on California's community colleges – formed in part to study alternative funding options – appears highly unlikely to recommend drastic changes in the way the state funds its community colleges.

Instead, the group’s draft recommendations aim to improve support systems for incoming students while also rewarding student behaviors that are known to lead to success.

For example, under the draft recommendations, students who remain on academic probation for too long or rack up more than 100 units of study could lose both enrollment priority for classes and eligibility for state-funded fee waivers. All students could be required to declare a program of study earlier. New students would have to take a diagnostic assessment, and if they test below college level, they could have to participate in a student success course.

The idea is that current policies allow community college students to wander around the curriculum, withdrawing and repeating classes multiple times, accumulating an unlimited number of units while avoiding services that could help them – and that this limits the ability of other students to get the classes they need.

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The new policies would aim to reward students for following pathways that will most likely lead to completion of a certificate, degree, transfer or career goal.

“This is not about getting rid of access in order to have success,” task force member Brice Harris, chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District, said at the group’s Sept. 14 meeting. “It’s about protecting access at all costs but … putting in known processes we know will make students more successful while protecting that access.”

In addition to the recommendations that would create incentives for certain student behaviors, the group may also recommend that the community colleges work more closely with California’s K-12 system to define college readiness. Some recommendations aim at improving basic skills education, a huge part of what community colleges do.

Other proposals would push the colleges to improve their use of technology so students can more easily navigate their way through an academic path with an easy-to-use online planning tool.

The Task Force on Student Success was established in January as a mandate of SB 1143, introduced by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, and sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

As originally introduced, Liu’s bill would have required the state to fund the community colleges based partially on their performance – a dramatic change. Rather than giving colleges money strictly based on how many students are enrolled in the third week of the term, the bill would have allocated half of the colleges’ funding based on the number of students who complete courses.

While the initial bill got support from some college chancellors and outside advocacy groups, it faced stiff opposition from many other college leaders and the Academic Senate, which said there was no way to implement such a funding model without unfairly disadvantaging colleges that serve more underprepared or at-risk students.

Ultimately, the bill was amended to create a task force that would study ways to improve student success and examine alternative funding models, with the goal of delivering recommendations to the Board of Governors and the state Legislature.

Liu's original bill and the task force that ultimately resulted from it, along with some of the changes that Chancellor Jack Scott has implemented in the last year, are aimed at improving the colleges' student success rates.

A 2010 study [PDF] by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at CSU Sacramento found that six years after enrolling, 70 percent of degree-seeking community college students had not completed a certificate or degree and had not transferred to a university.

The 20-member task force includes college chancellors, faculty and staff representatives, a member of Liu’s staff, outside researchers and advocates, a student senate representative, and a senior vice president from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. It has met each month since January. Scott participated in several meetings but was not a member of the group and did not vote on recommendations.

The proposals are not set in stone. The group plans to discuss its potential proposals with various groups across the state in October and November, including the Community College League of California; workforce development groups; officers in student services, financial aid, business and instructional divisions; and the academic and student senates.

The task force will gather feedback and present a final set of recommendations to the Board of Governors in December, along with a report to the state Legislature by March 2012. Ultimately, the Board of Governors would have to vote on the recommendations. Some of the proposals would require legislative changes. Others would require additional funding.

But while the draft recommendations are still being finalized, it was clear at the task force’s September meeting that the group would not be recommending a move to performance- or outcome-based funding, at least not right now.

The group heard from representatives from other state college systems that have implemented some kind of performance-based funding, such as Washington and Ohio [PDF].

While a vocal minority of task force members supported some kind of performance-based funding, the majority of members did not, citing a lack of clear evidence linking such funding models to gains in student success.

David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said that while he was disappointed about the failure to agree on a performance-based funding recommendation, he was happy about the recommendations for other policy changes.

“I wanted to see the group more fully embrace some element of performance-based funding, but I want to acknowledge I didn’t really expect that,” Rattray said. “I guess it’s a classic half-full, half-empty type of scenario. I’m very pleased with a lot of recommendations that have been made, and I think they’re very serious and difficult decisions.”

Rattray said he learned more through the task force about how California ought to approach the question of performance-based funding, but his fundamental perception had not changed.

“The biggest single thing that drives organizational behavior is the money,” Rattray said. “It’s how we tell you what’s important and what’s not important.”

Jane Patton, past president of the Academic Senate, a faculty member at Mission College and a task force member, said she expects many of the group’s recommendations will be hotly debated in the next couple of months.

“I think the intent behind most of the recommendations is sound; certainly, some of them we would view as too prescriptive, and some of them we have concerns about," she said. "It’s still a work in progress.”

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