Thursday, July 23, 2015

Free Community College in California: Will This Face-lift Positively Impact Disparate Outcomes?

California surfaced as one of the states in which there are significant disparities in educational outcomes. Changes are needed; grants (state and private) are available to this end that are high profile, and are based on quality, longitudinal data. The need for addressing the issue of outcomes (including through providing free community college) is receiving attention at federal and state levels. 

However, a national survey of community college presidents found skepticism regarding the prospect of free community college coming to their states even if federally funded; move over, these presidents suggest that too many choices are a significant reason hindering degree completion (Jaschik & Lederman, 2015). 

Let's not forget there is also general skepticism that exists among the public. As discussed in a Forbes article (Kelly, 2015), we know from the data about community colleges that "free" does boost enrollment numbers, but this probably won't translate to improved outcomes. 

It is my hope in writing this post that more educators will engage in the difficult conversations surrounding access issues in higher education.

The following topics are discussed briefly:
  • Statistics on California College Outcomes
  • California Community Colleges: Practices to Examine
  • The Uncomfortable Necessity of Change - Recommendations
  • Concluding Comments
Statistics on California College Outcomes

The following data reflects California colleges:

Completion of a college degree after 6 years for California and is from Campaign for College Opportunity (2015) :
  • Community College 49%  
  • California State Universities 51%
  • University of California 84%  
California Community Colleges: Practices to Examine

Community colleges educate a significant number of Black/African American and Latino students (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2015). Emphasis on improving education at this level would benefit may students and open access for degree completion and transfer to four year colleges and universities. Impediments exist that are systemic. Data reported by the community colleges reflects the success rate of students that complete courses, programs and those that transfer (California Community Colleges Chancellor's -Data Mart). Information that is reported does not sufficiently reflect the many students that withdraw from courses. More reasons contribute to failing to complete programs than the number of choices of programs and courses. Some unintentional and potentially systemic factors may include reasons students withdraw  from courses and the impact on community colleges, misunderstandings surrounding "content expertise," and identification of factors that need to change before new program models or financing are embraced. Without examination of these and other potential contributing factors, new programs and funds will be filtered into existing systemic practices and continue disparities in outcomes. 

What Does a "W" Mean Anyway?  The number of students that withdraw from courses does not seem to be included in the options for outcome measures listed on Data Mart. A "W" is not something a student wants on a transcript, and certainly not too many in order to transfer, but a "W" is better than sub-par grades. Students, knowing this, navigate the community colleges the best they can and if grades are low students will drop. Counselors commonly recommend dropping if this is the case and this is the right thing to do. Options to repeat courses should continue, because some students are under-prepared, life presents problems that interrupt studies, instructor style or experience and other factors may contribute. 

Blaming failure on students instead of improving how the courses are taught is easy.  Many instructors lack of understanding the learning process, student motivation and test construction (e.g., Bloom's Taxonomy; Krathwohl, 2002). Pedagogy is hardly discussed and less understood. Academic freedom seems to impede discussions surrounding the practice of teaching (aka pedagogy), because mere suggestions about instruction seems to be met with responses that this is part of academic freedom; difficult discussion are necessary (Community College Research Center, 2014). 

Financial Benefit of  a "W."  A slight discouragement in the financial compensation received by colleges would be appropriate when students withdraw so that compensation for students that complete the course would not be equivalent to those that withdraw. When compensation is the same, the more that drop, the better for the college because students need to attend another semester, and the better for the instructor because the work load for the current semester is reduced and the students will be back. If legislators would pay perhaps  a percentage instead of the full rate for the course and students were charged accordingly, maybe 40-60% for students that withdraw with a "W" and only provide full compensation  based on completion of the course. While the emphasis would be on full pay for students that complete the course, there would be a marginal pay to acknowledge attempt to education students that withdraw to validate the effort of the colleges and instructor efforts and time. The percentage should cover cost but discourage this as a practice one way or the other and would require large scale implementation and evaluation to achieve a percent that has this effect. Focusing on completion would drive improving the practice of teaching at the community college level. This would divert the temptation to blame the students for the failing outcomes. 

There is a buzz about "free community college." Free college that increases enrollment does not address the course/program completion or instructional issues central to the educational experience. In California at this time the grant that is driving the planning for this possibility offers for "free" credit and non-credit courses that are remedial in nature or lead to very low paying entry level jobs at best (AB86), and not the intended "live-able wages" specified in the grant language. While California may be the next to provide this opportunity (Fain, 2015), it is doubtful in this form that Obama's hopes will be realized.

The Problem of Context Experts and Applied Experience. Content experts are just that - experts in content. Because professional development funds were reduced more than 10 years ago by the state, a common attitude among community college educators is, "We're content experts - you don't get the best teaching here." The way instruction is delivered can lack organization, burying students under loads of content, and with the expectation that the students should organize and make sense of it. Community education is a mission and commitment and there is a need to engage faculty in conversations to this end. An instructor's repertoire should include the ability to organize and present content in segments that build student knowledge and understanding how to test for understanding specifically aligned with the instruction provided. 

We expect students to go to community colleges to bolster up grades for transfer or for technical degrees or certificates, or remedial instruction, and students with these needs require instructors that know how to organize and teach the content and are able to make changes to the pedagogy to improve learning outcomes (Bickerstaff & Cormier, 2015).  

When was the notion that "content expertise" was sufficient in and of itself to qualify an educator, and is it anywhere in peer reviewed research journals? Its not there. We know that applied experience is beneficial and can help with understanding, but many functioning at this high level have difficulty in translation of concepts to levels at which learners understand. In addition, there is a lack of understanding what information is necessary at the 100 level, 200 level and/or as prerequisite information for sequential courses, especially among adjuncts/part-time instructors, which, due to budget constraints, make up quite a lot of the teaching force in the current educational climate. This gap, similar in nature to understanding text construction and alignment with course content, is understanding alignment of instructional goals and course outcomes- Bloom's TaxonomyIt is the few who see the need, and invest the time in how the learning process works that make a difference, but these are the few because change takes additional expert level effort. 

The Uncomfortable Necessity of Change - Recommendations

Breaking barriers down is hard work. Change is uncomfortable. However, if higher education continues on the current trajectory, barriers will persist, perpetuating social classes that are very difficult to move in or out. A simple review of sociology literature confirms this problem. 

While there are more questions than answers and, indeed, there are many confounding factors. Some educational practices should be kept the same, because in education there are tried and true educational practices that play out in research and practice. While these need a face-lift from time to time because of improved understanding about the learning process, technological advancements, understanding how technology can improve and influence learning, social historical context, and individual learners, changes to what we know works is unwise.

What should change?

  1. Include students that withdraw in measures of outcomes. This will be telling about populations that are served, providing a more accurate picture of outcomes and disparities.
  2. Survey students (surprisingly some educational institutions/unions prevent or do not practice this - unfortunately this is true of community colleges in California). While this should not be a hiring and firing tool it is an indicator of student learning experience, and potential areas for growth.
  3. Align educational outcomes with current job practices; there is a gap in the expectations from the hiring process to the job expectations. Better alignment  could reduce poor educational outcomes.
  4. Have third party accountability. This must be a party that is financially invested in some way and does not stand to benefit regardless of changes or outcomes. When entities are vested it keeps them concerned about the aspects of each organization. 
  5. Ensure that those hired as educators are aware that "content expertise" is the starting point and understanding learning process, student motivation, and alignment of instruction and test construction (e.g., Bloom's Taxonomy) are necessary.  
  6. Alter the compensation colleges receive for students that withdraw from courses and place the emphasis on completion to drive the outcomes in a positive direction. 
  7. Finally, do encourage hard and honest work from students. None of these problems excuse shoddy student efforts. It has become increasingly important to clearly define academic honesty and have accountability systems well in place. No good can come of people in positions gained through academic dishonesty and in some professions more than others this has the potential to cause harm.

Concluding Comments

The lack of preparation that exists among typical students enrolling in community college for academic and workforce pathways leads to an arduous process that requires choice, persistence and effort at the individual level. However, in the defense of those that would like to make the choice and begin the path, institutions of higher education make the process so difficult a hardy individual could easily be dissuaded from persisting in a new path without bigger reasons to engage in the pursuit. Bronfenbrenner is an important lens through which to view these struggles.

It is common knowledge access is a problem that needs to be addressed. The results of recent changes to large scale programs by throwing out an older model or system in favor of a newer model or system seems only lead to the the same problems with new wrinkles to be ironed out in the new model or system. What this translates to? Shifting of funds with the same people in change who found a new way to frame an existing program or an old program shelf-ed due to lack of funds, and slowly discovering the new problems. How to avoid a bureaucratic exercise?! An honest look at what is in place, and consideration of the outcomes, meaning not only those that complete the courses. If only there was an effectopedia test for education. However, simple answers are naive because there are many confounding factors that contribute to disparate outcomes. 

A final thought -  in a completely unrelated, yet interesting story, a zoo in the third largest providence in China was closed for an unusual problem. Some visitors to the zoo heard the bark of the zoo's "African Lion."  The "African Lion" was really a  Tibetan mastiff. The zoo keepers stated the lion was away breeding and the dog was there for safety reasons, but there were also two snakes substituted for sea cucumbers, a white fox "impersonating" a leopard, and another dog as a wolf. A zoo representative said, "We're doing our best in tough economic times."

As budgets are strained and measures of outcomes and increased accountability loom, keep sight of the main thing - serving students. Let's not substitute "barking lions" for the real product. If students are served the funds will come. Well done efforts are self-sustaining.

Selected References

Bickerstaff, S., & Cormier, M. S. (2015). Examining faculty questions to facilitate instructional improvement in higher education. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 46, 74-80.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.

Community College Research Center. (February, 2014). Inside out: Faculty orientations towards instructional reform. Scaling Innovations Project.  Retrieved July 7, 2015 from

Fain, P. (2015). Free community college catches on. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved July 10, 2015 from

Kelly, A. (2015). Four reasons to be skeptical about Obama's free community college proposal. Retrieved on July 11, 2015 from

Anonymous. (2015). The state of higher education in California. Retrieved July 10, 2015 from