Invest in Success: How Finance Policy Can Increase Student Success at California’s Community Colleges

October 2007

Declining Fortunes

There is growing concern about the declining economic competitiveness of the United States relative to both established and developing nations. A telling indicator of declining fortunes is that this country is doing less well in educating new generations than are many other nations. Countries that are doing better at educating their young people will see rising educational attainment compared to the United States, where educational attainment is declining. As other countries are doing a better job educating young people than is the U.S., other states are doing a better job than is California. California’s rank among states in the educational attainment of the working-age population is slipping.

A second telling indicator is the contrast between access to higher education and completion of college programs. The U.S. is near the top in international comparisons in college participation rates but close to the bottom in completion rates. California is near the bottom of the pack, nationally, in a country that is struggling to keep pace globally, placing 46th among states in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 100 undergraduates enrolled. A slate of recent studies has concluded that California will need to increase degree attainment among its own population if it is to meet the need for college educated citizens and workers.

In a 2007 study entitled Strategies for Improving Student Success in Postsecondary Education, Arthur Hauptman suggests that the nation’s lack of college success and inability to close the equity gaps stem from policy priorities and funding systems that favor access over readiness and success. Our study examines whether state policies in California stand in the way of greater student success. We examine finance policy for the California Community Colleges (CCC) in an effort to understand whether policies are well targeted to help the state reverse its declining fortunes or if policy changes are needed. We focus on community colleges because they serve by far the most students and can have the biggest impact on the trends cited above – not because policies for the other segments of education are presumed to be satisfactory.

An Expanding Focus: Ensuring Access to Success

The good news is that after decades of state and federal policy attention to increasing access to higher education in this country, there is now considerable focus across the country on improving student success in college. The CCC system has signaled its commitment to student success with a new strategic plan with a goal of “student success and readiness,” an annual conference on student success, a new initiative to increase student success in basic skills, and countless local efforts to increase student success.

The catch is that public policies don’t often support the rhetoric around student success. A commitment to increase student success, no matter how genuine, is not enough if public policies work at cross purposes. If we know that today’s students require intensive support services but we don’t give colleges the resources and the authority to provide those services, we should not expect students to succeed. If we know that heavy work schedules prevent students from giving enough attention to their studies but our policies leave students with insufficient financial aid, we should not expect students to succeed. We should change the policies that impede student success.

Policy barriers can frustrate the best efforts to improve practices at the colleges. Resource constraints are certainly at the root of these frustrations and must be addressed, but whatever the level of funding, policies must be designed deliberately to accomplish their intended purposes. What is needed are resources and policies that ensure that resources are used effectively to promote student success and California’s prospects.

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