Dianne Van Hook: Unintended funding consequences

College of the Canyons. Source: COC

We’re all familiar with the law of unintended consequences – the idea that solving one problem leads to unexpected outcomes that in turn create new challenges.

Sometimes we can see problems looming, giving us an opportunity to adjust and avoid them. That’s the situation we find ourselves in with the 2018-19 budget Governor Jerry Brown proposed for the California Community Colleges.

A change in priorities

This proposal flips the metrics on which the state’s 114 colleges are funded. Instead of funding access and opportunity, colleges would be funded based on outcomes. Sounds simple, right?

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And those details will create unintended consequences that we can prevent – if we speak up now.

The new three-part formula rewards colleges’ progress on improving student success metrics. Enrollment would account for about half of a college’s funding. The remaining half would be allocated based on the number of low-income students a college serves and student completion. Completion is defined as the number of degrees and certificates granted and the number of students who complete a degree or certificate in three years or less.

The rationale for the new formula is to align resources with the ambitious goals adopted by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors around increasing degree and certificate achievement, increasing transfers to California State University and University of California campuses, and addressing achievement gaps among under-represented students.

How do we measure up?

So how does College of the Canyons perform when it comes to student success metrics?

  • Our completion rate is the second highest in California among college-prepared students.
  • Nearly 80 percent (79.4%) of our college-prepared students complete a degree or certificate, or are ready to transfer to a four-year university when they finish their studies.
  • And, the percentage of our students who transfer to a four-year university is among the highest of the 21 community colleges in L.A. County.

Moreover, the Class of 2017 set a record for the largest graduating class in college history – 2,046 students. That’s an increase of 40 percent over the Class of 2015. And, the number of degrees awarded – 2,531 – increased by 86 percent over the same time.

Equally impressive are the results from two innovative efforts to reduce the time our students spend in remedial courses. In the Math and English departments, faculty combined two lower-level courses into one condensed class, which saves students time, plus the cost of textbooks and enrollment fees. And, instead of using a standardized test to place newly enrolled students into math courses, the placement process takes into account high school grades. These changes resulted in a 76 percent increase in graduates between 2011 and 2017. For under-represented students, the difference was even more pronounced. Graduation rates increased by 157 percent for African-American students, 113 percent for Asian students, and 193 percent for Latino students over the same period.

Improving outcomes, but losing funding? How can that be?

With results like these, you would think the proposed funding formula would benefit our college. You would be wrong. Projections show College of the Canyons would lose money under the new funding formula. How could that be?

A key reason is we serve fewer low-income students relative to other colleges, so we qualify for less funding under that metric. Also, the requirement that students complete degrees in three years ignores the fact that 64 percent of our students attend part-time. And those in nursing, allied health, or STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) often require more than three years to complete their studies while attending part-time.

Avoiding unintended consequences

While these consequences are unintentional, they are very real. But they can be avoided. Instead of rushing forward to implement a new formula by July 1, ample time should be given to study what has been proposed, and already-identified flaws in the formula should be changed. For example, the formula should include funding for continued enrollment growth. Also, part-time students should be given more time to complete degrees. A more accurate methodology should be developed to identify students with financial aid. In short, the final formula should benefit all 114 community colleges in California, and the 2.1 million students they serve.

We are sharing our recommendations with our legislators, with the governor’s staff, and with the state Chancellor’s Office. Working together, we can craft a formula that enables colleges to boost student success, and solves more problems than it creates.

Dr. Dianne Van Hook serves as chancellor of College of the Canyons.

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