Fewer than one in three students who enroll in community colleges go on to enroll in four-year institutions within six years, and former Weber State University president and current Utah state senator Ann Milner said during the recent Dual Mission Education Summit held at Utah Valley University this is indication that the “hand-off process … is not working as well as people expect.”
Weber State pioneered what’s now called in Utah dual mission education — the idea that a single institution can serve both the community college and baccalaureate missions for students. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said such institutions allow the state’s institutions “to be a little bit more nimble,” which is important if Utah is to achieve his goal of becoming one of the top-performing systems in education.
Weber College became Weber State College in 1962 when it was granted permission to convert from a junior college to on a senior college conferring bachelor’s degrees. But the institution’s leaders thought it important to maintain the two- and four-year institution missions equally, realizing that not every student who begins at a community college wants a four-year degree.
Today, 62% of students who earn associate degrees at Weber State, which was granted university status in 1991, matriculate to four-year programs within the institution, and an additional 12% transfer to other Utah state colleges and universities thanks to articulation agreements.
Other states are looking to similar models, mostly as cost-savings measures; having one set of higher education administrators and technology systems can save a state quite a bit of money. Wisconsin, for one, is moving ahead with a plan to merge its two- and four-year systems due to declining enrollments, and Georgia has been a national leader in consolidations, going from 35 to 26 public institutions since 2011.
In Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, community leaders saw high school graduates “leaving, going to other communities, buying houses, starting families, starting businesses” and never coming back, because there weren’t enough regional institutions with “accessible degree programs,” said Red Deer College President Joel Ward. So Red Deer College successfully petitioned the ministry for the ability to begin granting degrees in addition to the career certificates it had been granting to help meet this need.
Filling a community void
“Everybody wants to be Harvard, but there’s only one Harvard — the rest of us need to do our jobs,” Ward said. "In fact, if your business model is too many applications, raise the admissions requirements, too few, lower them — that’s not a very good business model.”
But the problem of Harvard envy, as many industry leaders noted throughout the Dual Mission Summit, is a very prevalent one — one that threatens the success of institutions with missions to serve broad segments of the population.
“We use the word ‘access,' but then we put up barriers that are invisible to us but very visible to [students], whether it’s financial or otherwise,” University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross said during the event. “We have forged in our DNA the idea that credits and time in seat are the measures of success” — even financial aid is determined by time in seat — “but when you’re 45 years old and you’ve got kids, and you’re trying to figure out how to elevate yourself,” time in seat can be a barrier to that goal.
But juggling the desire for prestige at every institution with the need to serve the greatest number of people can be tough. While greater levels of selectivity can boost the rankings numbers, adding even minimal entry requirements keeps a number of students out, and most of those students come from underrepresented backgrounds, the leaders found.
“If you’re qualified, we’ll take you. If not, we’ll get you qualified, and if you don’t have the money, we’ll help you get it,” said Ward, underscoring the idea the importance of the institutions remaining open access to ensure the greatest number of students can enter.
But to do dual mission education well, said Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland, there has to be a commitment to both missions. "You can have all the rhetoric in the world, and all the mission statements in the world, but you've got to have a champion for this, because the tendency is [to favor] the four-year side" and inch toward elitism and selectivity, he said.
Sometimes, “students are not university ready, but they’re ready for certificates,” said Richard Williams, president of Dixie State University in Utah. Enrolling them in certificate programs at the same institution where they could potentially obtain bachelor’s degrees helps to build familiarity with higher education and instill a sense of “you can do it,” he said.
And, because students take the same general education courses whether they’re enrolled in a technical certificate program, an associate or a bachelor’s degree program, it puts students who may not have aspired to get a degree in class with learners who did, which furthers the sense of belonging and, in some cases, helps spark a desire to reach higher.
But sometimes, students are not ready for college at all. In Little Rock, Arkansas, and the surrounding regions, 10% of the population has no high school education, and most students come to Pulaski Technical College there at a third grade reading level, said Margaret Ellibee, the college president. A few years ago, the college had a 30% default rate and a 7% graduation rate, she said, which was caused in part by “needing to have lots of students come to campus [because the institution] needed money to pay for the buildings,” but not having the supports in place once they arrived.
In many ways, public colleges — particularly in states like Arkansas that have cut education budgets dramatically — are falling into the same pattern that has undergirded criticisms of for-profit institutions: Enrolling as many students as possible to collect tuition dollars, but leaving those students saddled with debt and no degrees. Arkansas has the third worst four- and six-year graduation rates in the nation, though it ranks in the third quartile on two-year graduation numbers. And while state support for higher education has gone down, so have tuition costs, meaning more bodies are needed to achieve the same budgetary goals.
“Our students were leaving with high default rates, and a bad taste for the higher education system” as a whole, said Ellibee.
On top of that, Arkansas has “many, many institutions,” which means there is a lot of competition for a dwindling population of students, and those many are not college-ready, she said.
To address the gaps, Pulaski Tech began working extensively with the surrounding school districts, providing college and career coaches, enrichment summer camps and expanded early college programs. The college's staff has begun playing a role in curriculum development to make sure that feeder district curricula are aligned with college entry standards, and they’re aligning the college’s professional development with the school district’s so that K-12 teachers can benefit from the same kinds of training.
The story is one that is familiar to state leaders across the country who are working to forge closer relationships between higher education and K-12 systems to help boost outcomes for students.
University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley said, “We have to resist the idea that every institution can be all things to all people.” Instead of focusing so heavily on rankings, he said higher ed as an entire enterprise has to learn “to be a lot more adaptable and flexible than we’ve been in public higher education.”