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 single-digit graduation rates, something is not working right.”
THE STORY SO FAR
Gov. Phil Bredesen has been working for more than a year with legislators and national experts to craft a road map to improve state colleges and universities.
Last week, he laid out his plans to a joint meeting of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the state Board of the Education, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The reommendations include changing the existing funding formula to make schools more accountable for graduation rates, creating dual enrollment between community colleges and four-year schools, eliminating remedial education at universities and mandating statewide transfer agreements.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE GRADUATION RATES
Tennessee average — 12 percent
* Columbia State Community College — 17 percent
* Northeast State Community College — 17 percent
* Walters State Community College — 17 percent
* Motlow State Community College — 16 percent
* Roane State Community College — 15 percent
* Cleveland State Community College — 13 percent
* Nashville State Community College — 11 percent
* Volunteer State Community College — 11 percent
* Pellissippi State Community College — 11 percent
* Dyersburg State Community College — 10 percent
* Chattanooga State Community College — 9 percent
* Jackson State Community College — 9 percent
* Southwest Tennessee Community College — 5 percent
Source: Complete College Tennessee
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 full-time 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 three-year 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 Board 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, four-year 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.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...