Beyond the Open Door: Increasing Student Success in the California Community Colleges

August 2007

In a policy brief released in February 2007, titled Rules of the Game, we presented data indicating that rates of completing certificates, degrees and transfers to universities in the California Community Colleges (CCC) are low. More importantly, we concluded that low completion is in part due to state policies which have produced barriers to the CCC’s ability to better foster student success and completion. This report presents more in-depth results of those analyses and offers recommendations for policy reforms aimed at improving student success. Another Institute report, due for release later this year, will describe how state finance policies for the CCC contribute to low completion and will offer additional suggestions for policy reform.

California’s Future at Risk

Researchers, policymakers, and educators are beginning to recognize several factors important to any discussion of postsecondary student success:

  1. The future of our state economy is tied to increasing the number of Californians who both enter and complete their college education. Several recent studies have projected a shortage of educated workers in California unless the state increases degree production in its colleges and universities. Changes in California’s economy require workers with more education and a greater ability to adapt their skills to a changing labor market. Disparities in educational attainment across racial/ ethnic populations and socioeconomic groups are an increasing danger, as population growth is occurring primarily among populations with historically lower rates of college enrollment and completion.
  2. California cannot continue to rely on attracting college-educated workers from other states and countries to meet the needs of its information-based economy. While this strategy has worked in the past, recent research by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that the state will not be able to import enough workers from other states and countries to meet the needs. Competition for skilled workers is increasing, and California’s high cost of living puts us at a disadvantage. It is likely that the state will need to improve rates of degree attainment among Californians in order to meet the demand for educated workers.
  3. The community colleges are the only pathway to a college education and upward mobility for many Californians. The California Community College system is indispensable to any effort to increase degree production, given that nearly three-quarters of the state’s public undergraduates attend community colleges. Rates of completion must increase in the CCC in order to ensure that there are enough educated adults to maintain the social and economic health of the state.
  4. The job of educating California community college students isn’t easy. Community colleges serve an incredibly diverse range of students, many of whom are under-prepared for college-level work, hold full-time jobs, provide financial support to their families, have limited English language proficiency, come from disadvantaged families, or lack clear educational goals. Despite these challenges, the community colleges are expected to succeed in fulfilling a variety of vital missions with far less funding per student than what is provided to K-12 schools and the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) systems.

In this report, we use the term “student success” as it was recently defined “in its simplest form” by two national experts in higher education policy, Peter Ewell and Jane Wellman– “getting students into and through college to a degree or certificate.” Ewell and Wellman acknowledge that there are numerous potential meanings of student success beyond degree attainment, but conclude that possession of a college credential “will remain the essential policy measure for the foreseeable future.” While arguments can certainly be made for broader definitions of success in California’s community colleges, the social and economic imperative to ensure that there are enough college-educated workers in California makes it reasonable to equate “success” with “completion” for the purposes of this policy-focused discussion. In doing so, we include the intermediate achievements that represent progress toward completion, like retention, course completion and finishing needed remediation.

The February policy brief generated a considerable amount of controversy, in large part because it was interpreted as critical of the system for factors that are largely outside of its control, such as students’ preparation, their competing life priorities, and system funding levels. But the Institute’s research is not aimed at evaluating the CCC. Rather, the research is intended to heighten awareness among state leaders about the state’s need for an educated workforce and citizenry, and to identify changes in state policy that can help the CCC, in concert with other educational segments, meet that need.

Ultimately, state policymakers are responsible for ensuring that California’s population is sufficiently educated to maintain the social and economic health of the state. Discussions about the rates of success among CCC students in completing certificates and degrees are essential because of the huge role that community colleges play in educating Californians. This focus on the CCC is not meant to minimize the role that the UC and the CSU have in helping improve educational outcomes in the state. Improvement is needed throughout the education enterprise and collaborative efforts will be especially important. This research focuses on the CCC because it serves by far the most students, including large numbers who later attend UC and CSU.

“Multiple Missions” do Not Preclude Attention to Completion Rates

Given the broad set of missions assigned to the community colleges, there has long been a justifiable resistance to completion rate measures that do not account for these multiple missions. Community college officials around the country have historically shared these concerns about the calculation of graduation and transfer rates, but increasingly recognize the importance of monitoring these rates as part of state efforts to strengthen educational capital. It is possible to have constructive policy discussions about increasing rates of completion in the CCC within the context of the community colleges’ multiple missions. In an effort to encourage such discussions, this report uses a method presented in the earlier policy brief to distinguish between those who seek a degree or certificate and those who do not, and applies that method in analyzing student success among degree seekers in California’s community college system.

California Must Increase Community College Student Completion

Applying the method to the 1999-2000 incoming cohort of students, this study found that approximately one in four degree seekers in the cohort “completed” – meaning they earned a certificate or degree, transferred to a four-year university, or achieved some combination of those outcomes within six years of enrolling in a community college. About three percent of all degree seekers earned a certificate, 11 percent earned an associate’s degree and 18 percent transferred to a university (there is overlap, as some students achieved more than one outcome). Seventy-six percent of degree seekers did not achieve any of these outcomes within six years of enrolling in community college.

These results confirm other research indicating that rates of persistence and completion in community colleges are low, likely too low to meet the needs of the workforce and to ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for individuals and the state.

California has one of the most accessible community college systems in the country, and Californians are rightfully proud of that. But the reality of low completion rates begs the question: access to what? We need to do more than open the door to college. Providing true opportunity for upward mobility V I | institute  for higher education leadership & policy at California state university, Sacramento through higher education requires that community colleges have the capacity – both in terms of adequate resources and supportive public policies – to help students meet their educational goals.

State and CCC Policy can Affect Student Success

The amount of resources available to community colleges obviously affects their ability to help students succeed. State appropriations provided per full-time student at the CCC are less than 60 percent of that for students at the CSU and less than one-third that of students at the UC. When state funds and student fee revenue are considered together, CSU has about 2.5 times the per-student funding as the CCC and UC has about 5 times the funding. While strict comparisons are hard to interpret in view of the different missions assigned to each segment, many reasonably question why community college students, who are among the most expensive to teach given their considerable needs for intensive instructional and support services, should receive so much less funding than students at four-year institutions. It is certainly the case that the comparatively low level of funding in the CCC puts a premium on the effective use of those limited resources. For the community colleges to best help the state meet its goals of educating more Californians, there must be additional resources and policy reforms so that the CCC has both the resource capacity and the policy environment to help students succeed.

The research literature points to many factors that affect student success in community colleges, including factors related to 1) the students themselves and what characteristics they bring with them to college, 2) the course-taking and enrollment patterns students follow while attending college, and 3) the policies and practices of colleges. These research findings provide guidance for potential actions state policymakers and the CCC can take to improve student success.

For this report, we analyzed relevant data for the 1999-2000 cohort of degree-seeking CCC students, and confirmed many of the relationships noted in the research literature. In particular, completion rates for this cohort of students varied according to student characteristics, including:

  • Gender, with higher rates of completion among female students (26%) compared to male students (22%);
  • Age, with rates of completion decreasing as the age of the student increased upon initial enrollment (27% completion for students age 17 to 19, 21% for age 20 to 29, 18% for age 30 to 39, and 16% for age 40 or older);
  • Race/ethnicity, with Asian and white students completing at higher rates (33% and 27%, respectively), than Latino and black students (18% and 15%, respectively);
  • Socioeconomic status, with a completion rate of 27 percent among students attending a college in an area with personal income in the highest quartile relative to other CCC populations (a proxy for student income), compared to a completion rate of 22 percent among students attending a college in an area with income in the lowest quartile;
  • Academic preparation, with a completion rate of 28 percent among students attending a college with average academic preparation levels in the highest quartile relative to other CCCs (a proxy for student academic preparation), compared to a completion rate of 19 percent among students attending a college with average academic preparation in the lowest quartile; and
  • Students’ commitment to a goal of completion, with the rate of completion higher for students who demonstrated more commitment to a goal of transfer or certificate/degree completion (35%) than for students who demonstrated less commitment (29%) or no commitment (19%) to the goal.

Consistent with other research, we found that CCC completion rates also varied according to selected course-taking and enrollment patterns. Students were more likely to complete if they:

  • attended full-time in a majority of terms (47% compared to 12% for part-time);
  • enrolled continuously over the period they attended (40% compared to 24% for students who stopped out);
  • enrolled in an orientation course (32% compared to 23% for students who did not);
  • avoided excessive course dropping (35% compared to 9% for students who dropped many courses); and
  • avoided frequent late registration for courses (27% compared to 21% for students who often enrolled late).

These descriptive results were mostly confirmed through a statistical method known as regression analysis. With the exception of enrolling in an orientation course, each of the factors had a statistically significant, independent influence on the likelihood of a student completing a community college program. The results for enrolling in an orientation course varied across different models, perhaps, in part, related to the difficulty of accurately measuring that variable in the dataset.

With respect to the policies and practices of colleges, the research literature indicates that colleges can contribute to higher completion rates by:

  • having an institutional focus on student success;
  • using instructional methods such as learning communities that integrate student support services with instruction and increase student engagement with their peers;
  • offering a comprehensive and integrated set of student support services and ensuring that students make use of those services;
  • assessing students’ skills in math and English and placing them in courses appropriate for their level of college readiness, with remedial work beginning immediately upon enrollment if it is needed; and
  • sending strong and consistent messages to prospective students about what it means to be college ready, so as to increase the preparation levels of incoming students.

The student cohort data used for much of this research do not allow an investigation of these particular aspects of institutional policy, or of the important issues related to the teaching and learning process in the classroom. But the report includes an in-depth, qualitative review of assessment and placement policies and the system’s overall approach to student advising.

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