Completion rates dip at Sacramento-area community colleges

Fewer than half the students who enrolled in five Sacramento-area community colleges during the depth of the recession had completed their coursework as of last year, new state data show.

The results from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office underscore the devastating trend of a declining job market, sharp cuts in state funding for colleges and reduced course offerings statewide.

Among Sacramento-area community colleges, Sacramento City College was the only campus among six in the region to see more than half its students complete their work, or 51.6 percent. That was a sharp drop, however, from the 59.4 percent recorded for students in 2005-06.

Among five other colleges in the region – Sierra, Yuba, American River, Cosumnes River and Folsom Lake – fewer than half the students completed college in the 2014 Student Success Scorecard released last week.

The scorecard’s completion rate reveals the share of students who attempted math or English during the first three years and then earned an associate’s degree, a certificate or enough credits to transfer to a four-year campus. The latest state data focused on the outcomes of students who enrolled in 2007-08.

Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, said the declines in completion rates – which occurred locally and statewide – were accompanied by two trends: Some laid-off workers chose to enroll in community colleges to wait out the recession. And some headed back to work as soon as jobs became available.

“They were the ones who said, ‘I will take any class. I will stand around. I will do whatever it takes to stay in college’ ” until the economy improves, Lay said.

The Student Success Act of 2012 – the impetus for the scorecard released this week – sought to discourage the casual student and clear the way for more students to complete certificates or degrees to transfer to four-year institutions.

That latter group, Lay said, “is where we are completely focused. It’s not a political statement. It’s a reality.”

Brice W. Harris, the chancellor of California Community Colleges, said in a statement that the statewide trend documented “the damage done by years of rationing education.”

College leaders said, however, that growing state revenues have set the stage for recovery next year in the rates that students complete two-year colleges. More money means campuses can provide additional classes to meet demand and counseling to help students navigate the system. The improved economy also has reduced overcrowding as some students choose to work instead of study.

Officials at area colleges said the latest results don’t reflect changes in the works at campuses such as American River College, which has the region’s largest enrollment with 44,144 students. ARC had a 43.1 percent completion rate last year, a 6.6-percentage-point decline from 2005-06.

“What do we think about that scorecard? None of us are happy with it,” interim President Pamela Walker said.

The first Student Success Scorecard a year ago galvanized campuses for change, Walker said.

“We saw with the data we needed to look at how we can do things differently,” she said.

That meant expanding instruction outside the classroom, holding math boot camps for incoming freshmen to strengthen their math abilities and offering increased guidance to students planning to transfer to a four-year college.

The number of new students participating in orientation climbed to more than 6,000 in seven weeks this spring, compared with about 2,000 for the full 2013 spring term.

If students participate in orientation, Walker said, their success rate increases.

The number of students being assessed for class placement has jumped to more than 9,000 so far this spring, up from nearly 5,000 in the full spring 2013 term.

William Duncan, president of Sierra College, said he believes that one of the biggest obstacles that students face in completing college is being unprepared when they enroll.

He said that concern drove creation of the Hub Student Support Center in fall 2013. The endeavor serves an array of student needs, from helping a single mother navigate child care to guiding students through applications for the fall 2014 semester.

“We have hired students as ambassadors” who staff the center on the Rocklin campus and call students to talk about registering for classes or coming into the center for help in filling out financial aid paperwork, Duncan said.

At Yuba College, which has the region’s lowest rate of student completion – at 39.9 percent – course schedules are being revamped for fall 2014 “to allow students to complete their degrees in a timely manner,” said spokeswoman Miriam Root.

“There was a 15-minute overlap” in classes, she said, “and we’ve tried to eliminate that as much as possible.”

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