:Chattanooga; :Jan 18, 2010; :Front Page; :1

Community colleges push back on graduation link

By Joan Garrett jgarrett@timesfreepress.com

    Online: Hear

    Carl Hite react to the plans for higher education reform. Read Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Complete College Tennessee plan. Read previous stories. Comment.

    Community colleges shouldn’t face the same pressure as four-year universities under a new funding formula for higher education to improve poor graduation rates, area two-year college presidents say.

    Many students in community colleges drop out or prolong their educations because they are not prepared or they transfer to a university without an associate degree in hand, officials said.

    “A graduation rate measure is meaningless,” said Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro. “About 60 percent of all students who enter our institutions have no intention of graduating.”

    All 13 of the state’s community college presidents joined in a conference call Friday with Tennessee Board of Regents officials to discuss Gov. Phil Bredesen’s overhaul of higher education.

    State officials said a revamped funding formula will account for transfers and student demographics. But community colleges aren’t merely victims of student choice, said Will Pinkston, a senior adviser to Gov. Phil Bredesen.

    “Access will continue to be important but so will success, and they will have to achieve a better balance,” he said. “When you have community colleges out there with singledigit graduation rates, something is not working right.”

    Since Gov. Bredesen threw down the gauntlet for higher education reform last week, community college administrators have worried about the impact his aggressive approach to improving college graduation rates
could have on state funding, which already is in decline.

    Instead of graduation rates, two-year colleges should be measured by the academic success of transfer students at four-year colleges and the placement of students in jobs, Cleveland State Community College President Carl Hite said.

    The easiest way to improve poor graduation rates is not to enroll students who are expected to struggle, he said.

    A bill that would require the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to change the state’s funding model to reward graduation rates instead of enrollment was introduced for consideration in the Tennessee General Assembly’s special session.

    If approved by the legislature this week, the details of the formula would be determined by THEC and unveiled in the next few months.

    Some community college administrators are anxious about a funding formula tied to graduation rates, which they say are not necessarily the right measure for success at two-year schools.

    More than 60 percent of students who enter community college have to take remedial coursework, forcing them, in many cases, to take longer than three years to earn their associate degree, Dr. Catanzaro said.

    And few students complete their associate degrees because so many only come to community college to take a few classes before transferring to a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year school, he said.

    Other students find fulltime jobs without receiving a diploma, Dr. Catanzaro said.

    “They would be a success on our part, and yet they would not be represented in the count for graduation rate,” he said. “They would be counted against us.”

    Still, Gov. Bredesen said state community colleges can and should work to increase the number of students with associate degrees. With a threeyear average of 12 percent, Tennessee now ranks 45th in the nation for graduation rates at two-year schools.

    Chattanooga State Community College graduates only 9 percent of students within three years, and Cleveland State Community College graduates 13 percent, documents show.

    “We can do better. We’ve got to do better,” Gov. Bredesen said when addressing the legislators during the special session. “Our economy hinges on our ability to develop a more skilled work force and, more fundamentally, giving kids a quality education so they can earn a good living.”

    Tennessee B oard of Regents officials said they plan to make their concerns about graduation rate measures known. A committee is being formed to develop formula recommendations for community colleges, said Mary Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents.

    “The concern is that we need to come up with some recommendations for THEC about how to structure the funding formula to reflect the different types of students that attend community college,” Ms. Morgan said.

    Under a new system for higher education, fouryear colleges may be able to afford to increase standards and limit accessibility but community colleges cannot, Dr. Hite said.

    “We have got a huge challenge on our hands to be successful with completion,” he said. “A game that could be played is to say, ‘OK, we could tighten up our standards and take students that we know will graduate.’ But I don’t want to close the doors.”