Commentary: Is Texas Getting What It Needs from Community Colleges?

Commentary: Is Texas Getting What It Needs from Community Colleges?

By John D. Colyandro and Russell H. Withers. Published in the Austin American-Statesman, April 6, 2016.

An estimated 30 percent of job openings in 2020 will require some college experience or an associate’s degree. President Barack Obama proposes that the federal government provide two free years of community college. He argues that if all 50 states adopt his plan, full-time college students would save approximately $3,800 in tuition per year and 9 million students would benefit.

Two-year institutions of higher education could serve valuable educational needs, but their aggregate performance is not meeting the expectations the Legislature demands of them. While the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has set a goal of awarding certificates or degrees to 60 percent of Texans between ages 25 and 34 by the year 2030, it is questionable — and worthy of consideration by the Legislature — if two-year institutions can be appreciably relied upon to help reach that goal. Across Texas’s 50 community and junior college districts, the rate of full-time students who attain two-year degrees or certificates within six years has remained between 29 percent and 32 percent since at least 2010. The rate for part-time students is worse, falling in a range between 22 percent and 25 percent. Texas ranks third nationally in terms of lowest average tuition at public two-year institutions, yet it ranks a dismal 46th in terms of completion.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas evaluated community college students in terms of assessment, placement and developmental education. Data collected from more than 70,000 community college students at 150 institutions reveal that 86 percent of students believed themselves academically prepared for college, but 67 percent required developmental or remedial coursework. Worse, when faculty members recognize unpreparedness in their students, only six percent of those faculty recommend that students change to a more appropriate course.

Even so, tuition and fee costs increased by 25 percent for in-district residents and 33 percent for out-of-district residents between 2010 and 2015. Operating revenues for junior and community colleges have more than quintupled from less than $1 billion in 1990 to $5.4 billion in 2014, though enrollment during that period only doubled. General revenue appropriations from the state — $2 billion in all funds for the 2014-15 biennium — account for approximately 30 percent of operating costs, and the rest is a combination of local property taxes — another $2 billion in 2014 — and tuition and fee revenue. The legislature has adopted performance-based requirements for its portion of operating costs, but very little emphasis is placed on measuring workforce preparedness of graduates.

The Texas Association of Community Colleges lists as one of its “key messages” that “student success is the highest priority of every community college in Texas.” It also maintains that “the state’s community colleges are driving rapid and expansive improvements in public higher education to meet current and anticipated workforce needs.” These messages are not matched with metrics measuring graduate success and workforce readiness. As Preston Cooper of the Manhattan Institute explains, “without measures to ensure that colleges help their students graduate and find good jobs, free tuition would only shuffle more young people into a system that fails two-thirds of them.”

The Center for Community College Student Engagement’s report on unprepared students and community colleges deserves a considerable amount of attention and should propel continued re-evaluation of the state’s two-year institutions, as well as K-12 public education. Student perception of their college readiness versus the reality show that intensive focus on self-esteem carries no meaningful benefit while deluding students that they are ready for post-secondary work. And it’s likely to leave more college-educated students frustrated as they attempt to enter the job market.

Colyandro is executive director and Withers is general counsel of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, a public policy foundation based in Austin.