With Little Funding or Support, Community College Students Dropping Out

With fees rising, and more than two-thirds of courses taught by part-time faculty, the path to a college degree has become too steep for too many students to climb.

In a new report with national implications for public higher education, the Massachusetts Teachers Association found that just 17 percent of the full-time students who entered one of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts in 2003 earned a degree or certificate by 2010.

“It’s an awful, absolutely horrifying completion rate,” said Joe LeBlanc, president of MTA’s Massachusetts Community College Council.

But it also isn’t so surprising, considering current trends around college funding and faculty hiring practices, which are mimicked across the country. Who is teaching these students? And are they getting the support they need? Thousands of students must navigate the system without a faculty advisor.

On the other hand, these trends are not irreversible. In its report, entitled, “Reverse the Course,” MTA offers recommendations to help students make the journey to certificates, degrees, and well-paid careers. If policy makers and state legislators care about providing opportunities to all of the Commonwealth’s citizens, and ensuring an able and qualified workforce for state employers, they’ll pay attention. But the report also deserves national attention, as the problems and solutions provided are not unique to the Northeast.

“This is about creating the conditions that support good student outcomes,” said Kathleen Skinner, director of MTA’s Center for Education Policy and Practice, which produced the report. “With more and more students enrolling in community colleges, and with that population becoming more and more diverse, the system has to acknowledge that they’re not providing the support services for those students to be successful in their academic programs.”

The challenges are these: Although state funding to higher education increased this year in Massachusetts (national figures are still unavailable), it’s still about a third less than it was in 2001 and consequently, student fees have increased an average 45 percent over the past decade, putting them in a range of $3,300 to $4,700 per student per year in 2011. Also during the past 10 years, the percentage of adjunct or contingent faculty teaching in the state’s community college courses has increased by about 34 percent. Currently, full-time faculty members account for just 31 percent of the instructional workforce in Massachusetts community colleges. This percentage is not unusual when viewed nationally.

These part-time professors may be very qualified, LeBlanc noted, but conditions of their employment often make it too hard to meet the needs of students. For example, adjunct professors are commonly hired “just in time,” a few days before classes begin. How can they get ready to teach on day one? Typically, they don’t have office hours (or offices at all) — and, most important, they do not provide students with comprehensive academic advising services. Only full-time faculty members advise students. (Their employment contract calls for a ratio of 18 students per faculty member, and a minimum of four hours per week spent on advising services.)

But community college students are increasingly needy of these support services. Consider that more than two-thirds of students in Massachusetts’ community colleges enroll in at least one remedial class in their first year. These are classes for students who can’t do the basic math or reading required of college courses. Worse, only 53 percent complete the course; only 30 percent go onto to enroll in credit-bearing courses; and only 10 percent graduate within three years of enrolling. “Community college students often have significant financial and academic needs, and many are the first in their families to go to college,” said LeBlanc. “Many of them need a lot of guidance in order to stay on track through graduation.”

Real student advising isn’t just, ‘okay, take this class next,’ says LeBlanc. Real advising is, “I see you’re not doing well in this course, let’s talk about it,” or “Your attendance is getting a little spotty here. What’s going on?” It means sitting down with a student, talking about her career goals and connecting those goals to a course of study. Research shows that the sooner a student gets into a declared program of study, the better the student outcomes—50 percent who do this in their first year will earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university. And yet, at one Massachusetts community college, Northern Essex, less than half of students report being in touch with their advisor during the first semester.

“We believe that too many students are falling through the cracks, in part because they don’t have the guidance they need,” said MTA’s Elizabeth Shevlin, the report’s primary author. “As recently as 2007 a state task force recommended increasing student advising services by increasing full-time faculty. Unfortunately, since then percentage of the faculty that works full time has actually declined.”

Sadly, none of this is unique to Massachusetts, nor to two-year colleges. Public colleges and universities across the country have reported drops in state funding — 28 percent on average during the past five years. And institutions nationwide have been forced to respond with increases in tuition — 27 percent overall, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At the same time, the trend toward non-tenured, adjunct or contingent faculty also is widespread. Tenured or tenure-track jobs now make up just 24 percent of the academic workforce, according to the annual report from the American Association of University Professors.

“It’s not that the individuals teaching without tenure aren’t excellent teachers. They are,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s senior policy analyst for higher education. “But without the support they should be getting from their institutions, they cannot do the jobs they want and should be doing.

“We need to reinvest in our academic workforce,” said Smith.

MTA’s report also offers a number of recommendations, including the restoration of state education funding, which would enormously help community college students. Those recommendations include the following:

· Community colleges should use a meaningful portion of the new funds allocated to them in the 2013-2014 state budget to hire more full-time faculty.

· The state legislature and governor should continue to restore funds to public higher education in future years to implement changes needed to improve student outcomes, including improving community college graduation rates.

· Among other issues, the state’s Special Commission on Higher Education Quality, Efficiencies and Finance, which was funded in this year’s budget, should examine what impact the loss of full-time faculty has had on students and make recommendations to ameliorate any adverse effects.