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Why Fundamental Change in Higher Ed is Necessary (Guest Post)

The following is the second in a three-part series of guest posts by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. See the first post here.

Today, the United States has two parallel structures of public postsecondary education: universities (four-year schools) focused primarily on the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees and above, and community colleges (two-year schools) focused on teaching high school curriculum, providing industry certificates and associate degrees, and helping students gain admission to four-year schools.

Both of these structures are in turn governed by the overall frame conditions of higher education, which include the bodies that ensure accreditation of institutions and programs, federal and state regulations, and the implicit and unspoken rules of the sector.

All parts of the postsecondary education system are in need of dramatic improvement. In my opinion, both the structure of the sector and the purpose of the individual institutions must be fundamentally transformed towards a solitary focus on student learning and outcomes.

Many of the specific changes required are well-known to most in higher ed, but the sector as a whole is embracing the required, large changes exceedingly slowly – while millions of students discontinue their studies and the United States keeps decreasing its relative standing in the world.

First, focusing on the frame of conditions for the industry as a whole, there are four large, interlocking sets of problems that collectively ensure the inertia that has allowed the educational levels of the American populace to deteriorate so dramatically in comparison with international standards:

  • Accreditation: The quality assurance process of institutions is largely organized by volunteers that come from within the industry. In many cases, this establishes mindsets and requirements that are insular and self-referencing. Moreover, the penalties for non-compliance are very limited – or exceptionally overreaching in the cases where an institution is disallowed from allowing students to pay tuition with federal financial aid.
  • Governance: In general, the sector is governed in a decentralized manner, with public policy considerations largely divorced from decision-making and with highly diffuse accountability structures. As an example, employees routinely form parallel institutional governance structures outside the appointed or elected institutional board members, which represent a mechanism to maintain the status quo of power structures.
  • Funding: State legislatures are increasingly defunding public tertiary education institutions throughout our nation. Such decisions are often rooted in the sector’s lack of responsiveness to societal and student requirements, combined with perceptions that higher ed’s cost and pricing structure has gotten out of control.
  • Leadership: Recruitment of executive leadership within the industry puts a unique premium on having grown up in the system. Hiring processes are often institutionally focused with large groups of people making hiring decisions. As a result, the sector’s inability to recruit the best and the brightest from across all sectors of society sustains the status quo – and continuously declining outcomes.

Second, reshaping the institutional focus on improving student outcomes, and especially the equity of those outcomes, will require tackling similar sets of large problems that directly challenge the existing power bases in the sector:

  • Relevance: Program and curriculum development is in most cases not connected with other institutions or the labor market. As a result, the transferability of credits across institutions and the eventual usefulness of those skills in the labor market is often limited.
  • Structure: In general, the industry does not provide good structures that allow for students to understand their goal, the path to reach that goal, and the implications of going off course. These structures must be deeply embedded within the fabric of each institution. One simple example would be to insist that classes are offered to students when they need them, instead of when institutions want to offer them.
  • Student Supports: Higher education officials maintain mountains of individual student data and could be leading the way in the use of analytics and proactive interventions. However, most institutions have not aligned their systems to proactively identify and support students showing signs of being in trouble.
  • Operational Excellence: Despite being organizations with massive balance sheets, billions of dollars of revenue and costs, and serving millions of students, postsecondary institutions often place little emphasis on truly implementing principles of operational excellence. These institutions have all the characteristics of billion-dollar businesses—but are not managed as such.

In short, there are very large issues, both within the sector as a whole and within each institution, that must be fundamentally changed—and this change will take years or even decades to take effect. However, the sooner we start, the sooner we will put our nation on track to a future of world-class, equitable educational outcomes for all.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.

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Interview With US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty (Video)

As a member of the Urban Institute’s US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, I recently participated in a series of video interviews in which those involved in the partnership reflected on their work. A collaboration between the Urban Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Partnership sought answers to “one big question” — what would it take to dramatically increase mobility from poverty?

In my reflection, I discussed how community colleges can work to reduce poverty and the steps we undertook at the City Colleges of Chicago to help low-income students succeed.

Watch the video below or on the Partnership’s website.

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Encourage Full-Time Courseloads—But Make Sure They Count For Every Student

It wasn’t until I returned to City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) as chancellor, many years after attending one of its campuses as a student, that I learned I had taken a full year of credits that weren’t transferable to the four-year institution I ultimately attended. Like me, that’s because too many students enroll at community colleges across the country without being given the information they need to be successful in reaching their goals.

One important bit of information that community colleges must address and share with their students is an unfortunate reality: students who are enrolled part-time are far less likely to reach their goals. Numerous research studies have underscored the importance of community college students hitting key momentum points early on in order to graduate successfully. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, full-time students who entered two-year public institutions in 2015 were nearly 15 percent more likely to return for their second year than part-time students. And research from Complete College America’s 15 to Finish initiative shows that part-time students also are three times more likely to withdraw from their studies; more one in three do so in their first year.

Yes, it’s true that community college students often face significant obstacles that make it difficult for them to attend school full-time. I know firsthand the burden of balancing difficult circumstances in life and school. Community colleges always will have part-time students, and our institutions must support them. But research has shown that even moving closer to full-time status makes a big difference: students who earned between 24 and 29.9 credits—just shy of full-time status—were more than twice as likely to ultimately earn a degree than those who took fewer courses, according to Complete College America. We also must resist the allure of allowing the struggles of our students to become excuses for our shortcomings and complacency. They have more grit and determination than we often give them credit for, and their struggles should serve as motivation for us to work harder to transform our institutions to ensure they succeed.

When we draw distinctions between full-time and part-time students, I worry we’re having the wrong debate. Community colleges must transform how they operate to provide greater support, planning and advising for working students and those with families, and based on research and real-world experiences, a major part of these efforts should involve restructuring our programs and incentives to ensure that all students take more courses.

The reality today is that too many students—whether they take classes full-time or part-time—languish in programs that take too long to complete or accumulate excess credits that are discarded when they transfer.

This is why it’s so important for community colleges to restructure programs to provide students with clear pathways to achieving their goals, while eliminating unnecessary or duplicative courses. Students should graduate with relevant skills that employers and transfer institutions are seeking.

It’s not just about completing the coursework on time, but also ensuring on-time completion with relevant credentials and skills. If we’re going to ask our students to shoulder a larger course load—and we should—we need to make sure they’re not wasting time in classes that won’t help them reach their goals.

Many in the community college sector are doing great work to address these issues, including pathways, predictive scheduling, whole program enrollment, and national campaigns such as 15 to Finish. In my book, I provide details on specific programs that we implemented to not only encourage more students to attend full-time, but also to ensure the programs they were attending were more focused and relevant—during my tenure at CCC. In my experience, students thrive when institutions are structured to support both a focus on on-time completion of coursework and the development of skills that are either transferable to a four-year institution or valuable to an employer.

To help students succeed, community colleges must move beyond using student challenges as excuses and instead embrace systematic transformation. Yes, it’s true that funding for education continues to trend downward nationally, even as concern about the cost of education continues to grow. But when we find ways to move them through our system faster and equip them with skills that can translate into future employment, that helps shift the conversation from the cost of education to the cost of a credential with value in the workplace. That’s a conversation I believe community colleges are well-equipped to have, as long as they create systems that ensure that students have clear academic plans, connected to relevant curriculum that maps to their career aspirations, and then guide them through those pathways with adequate support to ensure they stay on plan.

As a former community college student, I understand the importance of education in creating a bright future. And as a former community college student who was allowed to accumulate far too many credits, I also understand the importance of helping students make informed decisions within systems that are designed to help them not just enroll, but also reach their goals in as timely a fashion as possible. This is why I implore institutions to embrace systematic change that accommodates working students, adult learners, and those with families.