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Measure to improve student success at California Community Colleges clears hurdle

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California legislators voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure Thursday that aims to streamline the path to student graduation, certification and transfers in the California Community Colleges.

The 36 to 1 concurrence vote in the state Senate means that SB 1456 now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown who has 30 days to sign or veto the measure. The bill, authored by Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, is one result of a year-long study by the 20-member Student Success Task Force. The group put together a 70-page plan that included 22 recommendations of reform. (The changes included in SB 1456 are the ones that require legislative changes, officials said.)

"We were very concerned about the fact that a lot of the students who got into community colleges, either they didn't get a certificate or degree, or didn't transfer," said system Chancellor Jack Scott. "And so we began to look at ways to ensure greater student success...This bill is a start of that."

At the California Community Colleges — the world's largest such system with 112 campuses serving about 2.6 million students — only about 54 percent of the students earn a certificate, a degree or transfer to a four-year institution. That number drops further for students who are African-American (42 percent) or Latino (43 percent).

This bill, however, aims to help buck that trend. It provides for an intensive orientation to help students establish their educational goals, and the creation of a common assessment that would be administered to students at the start of their studies at one of the campuses. A common assessment would allow students to take courses at more than one community college, especially as course offerings dwindle, without having to take an assessment at each. More than 10 percent of community colleges students take courses at more than one campus, Scott said. 

"Particularly in the Los Angeles area, because maybe they've discovered the English course they wanted they couldn't get at Glendale College, but they come to Pasadena where they could get it," Scott said. "It's a pretty common practice now, particularly with the scarcity of courses. They're kind of shopping."

The bill also requires students receiving the Board of Governors' fee waiver to maintain certain academic goals to continue to qualify; if they are on probation for two consecutive semesters, the students would no longer be eligible.

Colleges are required to post a student success "scorecard" indicating statistics such as certification, degree and transfer rates broken down by gender and ethnicity.

"We've always been great at student access, in the sense that we admit all high school graduates, but unfortunately sometimes we have found that they don't succeed like they should," Scott said. "So we want to do everything possible to not only give them an interest in community college but make sure they succeed once they get there."

Other recommended reforms have already been taken up by the system, including the establishment of a priority registration system, which would be a significant departure from its take-all-comers philosophy. 

"We're trying to do the best we can in very difficult circumstances," Scott said. "Community colleges in the last three years have taken a 12 percent cut, and it means unfortunately some of our students are ending up being turned away."

Last year 137,000 students were turned away by the system, meaning they couldn't even get into one course, officials said. Unlike UC or CSU systems, which can use tuition increases to offset funding costs, the fees for the California Community Colleges are set by the Legislature and those funds return to Sacramento. That means cuts often more directly translate into reductions in course offerings and student enrollment.

In 2008-9, the system served 2.89 million students, but that number dropped to 2.6 million last year, Scott said.

"Now that decrease was not a lack of demand," Scott said. "It resulted from the fact that the state gave us 12 percent less money, and as a result we could offer considerably fewer courses."

If signed by the governor, the changes will go into effect Jan. 1. Any changes that require funding will not be implemented until there is money to do so, Scott said. But he said most of the changes were fine tuning to programs already in place or, in the case of the "scorecard," providing the data to each college so that it could publicize the information.

"The main thing we want to see is students succeeding, we desperately need a better educated work force," Scott said. "All the statistics point to the fact that more and more jobs are going to require more and more education...The jobs coming back [after the recession] are for the better educated. The jobs open to a person with only a high school diploma are becoming more and more scarce."

For Scott, who retires Sept. 14, SB 1456 along with a previous measure he worked on to ease transfers between community colleges and the California State University are a major part of his legacy.

"As far as a positive achievement, I would look on those two things as to what I can look back on with a lot of pride and say 'OK I had a little hand in those two accomplishments,'" Scott said.

Scott will join Claremont Graduate University's School of Educational Studies as a scholar in residence Sept. 17.

UPDATE: The California Community Colleges received new numbers this week, according to Paige Marlatt Dorr, a system spokeswoman:

Enrollment dropped to 2.4 million students in 2011-2012, and the system turned away more than 200,000 students who could not get into a single course, she said.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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