3 higher ed policy paradoxes that undermine community colleges

Success defined by universities does not capture achievements made by community colleges

Education policies have recently dominated federal and state headlines, from the contentious nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Kentucky’s introduction of performance-based funding.

Policymakers and pundits often see higher education through the lens of their four-year alma mater. Few hold a community college degree or credential. The policy institutes that advise lawmakers often unproductively lump together the two- and four-year sectors as "public education" without consideration for their unique missions. As a result, policies designed with four-year universities in mind often have the unintended byproduct of perverse incentives for community colleges and their students.

Below are three ways in which these four-year-centric policies are hindering your institution's progress.

1. Student financial assistance insufficient to boost impact of educational spend

Matching financial assistance policies designed for the typical four-year student—tied to parental income, assuming traditional age—are insufficient for the populations served by community colleges (and increasingly by four-year universities as well). In fact, tuition assistance rarely addresses the true barriers faced by an at-risk student population such as the need to support extended family, high costs of living, food insecurity, or travel and commuting costs.

Factoring in the end-to-end cost to deliver access without adequate appropriations to cover operational costs can be detrimental to the institution. It can also lead to unintended consequences, such as requiring the college to increase fees and other alternative revenues to provide services that cost the student in the longer term. Further, supporting community college access through tuition reduction programs like Tennessee Promise without proportionate support to remove completion barriers can be considerably more expensive to taxpayers.

Financial Aid Replaces Limited State Funding

2. Accountability metrics harm institutional excellence

In reaction to perceived poor student success rates, state and federal lawmakers have emphasized collection, reporting, and analysis of accountability metrics. Unfortunately, the cornerstone of those metrics—graduation rate—is built for universities, not community colleges. Graduation rates count first-time, full-time students and allow them 1.5 times the normal time-to-degree to graduate. Though four-year institutions rightfully quibble with this measure, given it reflects a shrinking cohort of students they serve, the graduation rate still reflects them fairly well: 75.4% of bachelor’s degrees are awarded within six years.

Of the small group of community college students who qualify as first-time, full-time students, only 35.1% of eventual graduates earn their degrees within three years. Thus the majority of community college graduates do not count in the official graduation rate. When those metrics are used to compare and rate institutions or set funding levels, community colleges—which already have the lowest funding levels across the higher education spectrum—are less capable of investing for success.

3. Performance-based funding can increase costs while hurting access

Performance based funding models

Thirty-eight states now actively use or are experimenting with performance-based funding models. Funding higher education institutions based on performance has led to a host of unforeseen consequences, including incenting four-year institutions to prioritize admitting students with the greatest chance to succeed. Community colleges do not have this option; they are effectively penalized for fulfilling their core mission of serving higher-risk students.

Community college students graduate at a lower rate for many reasons beyond the college’s control. Intervening life factors cause stop-outs and drop-outs more frequently at community colleges than at four-year universities. Models that reduce funding for these students can create a spiral for community colleges: funding decreases spending available to help at-risk students succeed, leading to higher attrition, and so on.

Policy made for community colleges will work for community colleges

The solution is straightforward, albeit challenging: Don’t confuse the definition of success at a community college with success at a four-year university. For policymakers, that means designing smart incentives for community college students to progress through their studies and measuring a wide range of outcomes.

Imperative 1: Encourage achievable goals

Instead of assuming a degree is the goal, break a student’s journey into milestones. Increase colleges’ funding per student for students who achieve 25%, 50%, and 75% of the credits for a degree, and award students extra financial aid grants for meeting the same benchmarks, as discussed at a recent Association of Community College Trustees conference. Community colleges do not close in the summer, so grant students financial aid year-round to quickly propel them to a degree.

Imperative 2: Measure them correctly

Count all students, not just first-time, full-time students. Non-traditional students are at the core of community colleges’ missions. Assessing their outcomes incentivizes colleges to improve for all students.

Imperative 3: Reward colleges and students appropriately

Performance-based funding for community colleges works better as a system of bonuses than a system of penalties. Community colleges already operate on meager budgets, and further cuts threaten their capacity to serve their regions. Rewarding success allows them to expand support for their students.

Next, improve the community college onboarding experience

Student onboarding is another area where community colleges face different challenges than four-year institutions. Check out our latest diagnostic to see your campus through the lens of a first-time student.

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