Community colleges keeping more students

By The Associated Press

POPLARVILLE – A record increase in the number of new students in Mississippi’s community colleges translated this spring into a record number of degrees.

In the fall of 2009, the 15 colleges recorded a 14.3 percent increase in students that pushed enrollment past 80,000 for the first time. Last month, the colleges awarded a record 13,228 degrees, up 1,873, or 14.2 percent from the year before.

The increase comes at an opportune time for community colleges, which soon may see part of their funding based on the number of degrees.

Student graduation “is the strongest accountability that we will be faced with in the future,” Pearl River Community College President William Lewis, whose college just graduated a record 879 graduates, told The Hattiesburg American.

Nationwide, community college graduation rates are notoriously low. Though state board officials said they don’t have system wide data tracking graduation rates, U.S. Department of Education data show the graduation rates for most Mississippi community colleges between 20 and 30 percent.

But relying on graduation rates alone is tricky when determining the effectiveness of community colleges, officials said.

The move to emphasize community college graduation started with President Obama’s call in 2009 for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020. Gov. Haley Barbour wants funding based on productivity goals and accomplishments rather than enrollment. The Legislature has agreed to study that idea.

The state appropriation to community colleges is approximately $235 million.

The Education Achievement Council, composed of 23 members from the business, education and politics arenas, will come up with a funding plan to recommend to the Legislature in 2013.

One of the panel’s tasks will be to define “productivity.” Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Community and Junior Colleges, said that must address the high volume of students who come to community colleges with no intention of graduating — either because they come for a short time to improve their skills or because they transfer early to a four-year college.

“Measuring graduates is easy,” said Clark. “Measuring productivity is a little trickier.”

One way to bridge the productivity-graduate gap is simply to make graduating easier. Clark said the community college has done little things such as removing a $40-$50 graduation fee for students.

Clark said the Education Achievement Council also has discussed applying university course work to community college degrees.

“If a student is six hours short of his associate’s degree and he transfers to a university then the credit hours he gets there would apply back to completing his associate’s,” Clark said.

That, in turn, would make for “a more accurate measure of the number of students who get an associate’s degree,” he said.

The system also is trying to retain more students. For instance, Pearl River Community College has used a $2 million U.S. Education Department grant to develop an early alert system for students considered candidates to leave school early, including dealing with such issues as financial management.