Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in the California Community Colleges

February 2007

Low Rates of Degree Completion and Student Success are Threats to California’s Future

Low rates of completion in the community colleges present a serious problem for California’s future. Studies project a shortage of college-educated workers to meet the demands of the state’s growing knowledge-based economy.

  • About 40 percent of first-time students in the California community colleges are not seeking a degree or certificate, but are pursuing basic skills, job skills, or personal enrichment.
  • Of the 60 percent who are seeking a degree or certificate, only about one-fourth succeed in transferring to a university and/or earning an associate’s degree or a certificate within six years.
  • Without big gains in educational attainment, especially among the growing Latino population, the state’s per capita income will soon fall below the national average and the average education level of the California workforce will decline.

Policies Create Barriers to Degree Completion and Impede Student Success

  • Historically, public policy has been focused on removing barriers to access. These policies have succeeded, as California enjoys high rates of college enrollment.
  • But these access-oriented policies have had the unintended consequence of inhibiting completion.
  • Barriers to completion result from state public policies in several areas that create the “rules of the game” by which colleges and students make choices that serve to impede student success.
  • We must give equal attention to removing barriers to completion in view of the urgent need to increase education levels of the state’s workforce. It is not enough simply to open the door to students. Success must be redefined as ensuring that students reach their goals.

Removing Policy Barriers to Completion Can Increase Student Success and Help the California Economy

  • Changes to state policy in the following five areas can reduce barriers to completion:
    • Reform finance policy by incorporating incentives for completion instead of solely rewarding access
    • Grant colleges more flexibility to use their funds to enhance student completion
    • Grant colleges more flexibility to hire the faculty and staff they judge will best help students meet their academic goals so they can succeed in today’s workforce.
    • Modify student fee and financial aid policies to help students meet the high costs of college attendance beyond fees, to encourage more students to attend full-time, and to give colleges more access to fee revenues.
    • Revise college policies so there are clearer standards and assessments for college readiness, matched with better counseling and support to help students plan and navigate their college careers to maximize their chances of success.
  • Nearly three-fourths of California’s public college undergraduates enroll in our community colleges, making the colleges the most important link in the chain of upward mobility and economic health in California. This brief shows that with the right policy reforms, we can solve many of the problems that contribute to the low rates of completion that are impeding the success of students and the state.
Download PDF