Friday, June 22, 2012

To Complete or Not to Complete...Is This The Question?

A column by Chancellor Cindy L. Miles
Published June 21, 2012 in the East County Herald

Chancellor Cindy Miles
at Grossmont College's

Hamlet’s oft-quoted “To be or not to be” soliloquy in the Shakespeare play centers on the difficulty of knowing the truth in an uncertain world. Community colleges face a similar question as they examine their mission today: “To Complete or Not to Complete?”

Community college leaders across the country are talking about ways to help students succeed in their classes and graduate with a certificate or degree. You might have heard about the initiatives called the College Completion Crusade, the American Graduation Initiative, or the Student Success Agenda.

Central to all these discussions is how to increase the numbers of Americans who complete college certificates and degrees. President Obama articulated the goal in his call for America to double the number of college graduates by 2020. The rationale is compelling and clear:
·         The United States, which used to lead the world in the proportion of young people it graduated from universities, now ranks 14th.
·         Three-fourths of the 20 fastest-growing careers and 80 percent of “middle class jobs” in the United States require college certificates or degrees.
·         Studies predict that by 2018, the nation’s postsecondary system will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than demanded by the labor market.

This ambitious goal comes at an incredibly difficult time for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and other institutions of higher learning in California. We’re in the middle of the worst budget crisis our colleges have ever faced. State reductions in per-student funding   have stripped Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges of more than 2,000 courses in the past three years.

Community colleges: a great value

While this noble goal of increasing student completion may seem unrealistic, given the current budget crisis, there may be no better time to raise standards and expectations of ourselves and our students.   

Community colleges are under ever-higher scrutiny as accountability demands mount from Sacramento and Washington. Nearly all our funds (94 percent) come directly from taxpayer revenues. Even the student tuition fees that we collect locally are sent to Sacramento as part of revenue pools, and policymakers naturally want to show the public that dollars spent on community colleges are not wasted and are used for the greatest good.

      The good news is that Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges have been and remain extraordinary investments! We are mission-driven institutions filled with talented and dedicated people who take their jobs very seriously. Our institutions are running at the highest productivity levels and at the lowest costs we can muster—classes are brimming even as employee numbers have declined.  We are not able to serve quite as many students – the state has cut our funding for nearly 3,000 students since 2009—but we still provide very high-caliber college and workforce training for more than 27,000 students each year!

We are also pleased to see more of our students succeeding in their classes and persevering to complete their education. In the last three years, the college district has directed a laser focus on advancing student success and completion through targeted initiatives and enhanced data monitoring to track improvements.

We have made hard decisions about what courses and programs to fund (and defund) based on student success priorities. First-time students who complete testing, orientation, and advising -- steps proven to increase college success—are now given priority at the front of the registration line. New initiatives for first-year students, as well as basic math and English as a Second Language courses are showing distinct improvements in student success and advancement to higher-level courses.

Student behaviors are changing as well. Courses are harder to obtain, but they are more highly valued. Timelines and expectations mean more, such as the June 29 application deadline for getting a registration appointment for the fall semester.

       Should we jump on the completion and student success bandwagon? I’d say we already have. More than 2,300 students received degrees or certificates at our recent commencements. 

Last week, 40 students from Grossmont Middle College High School students (a dedicated group of high school students who co-enroll in classes at  Grossmont College) walked across the stage with high school diplomas in hand and more than 1,000 hours of college under their belts. Many were accepted to multiple colleges; together these 44 students will enter college with $410,000 in scholarships and grants to bolster their college endeavors.  

To Complete or Not to Complete: That is not the question for us. As Diana Pico, alumna of Grossmont College’s nursing program and this years’ commencement speaker reminded the audience: we must follow our hearts and take responsibility for the future of our community and world.

I remain optimistic that East County has a bright future. Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges offer the keys for students to unlock the educational doors to their future. So maybe all we need to do is to turn up the volume on our completion campaign anthem – Graduation Starts Today!