When Gene Judson graduated with his associate's degree from Chabot Community College in 1989, he immediately knew something was wrong.
Not with the degree itself, which he earned after five hard years of working and going to school part-time. Rather, it was the fact that of the ten-thousand-plus students enrolled at Chabot, only about six hundred received their degrees. "I thought there was something wrong with that picture," he says.
Judson went on to earn his bachelor's in business administration from Cal State Hayward, but his community college experience never left his mind. He wondered: Were all community colleges like Chabot? If so, why did so few students graduate?
This summer, Judson and his San Leandro-based consulting group, FirstDegree, compiled a study of graduation rates for the Bay Area's 24 community colleges for the 2002-2003 school year. The firm compared the number of full-time equivalent students with the number of degrees awarded, allowing students a three-year period to complete the sixty credits needed for an associate's degree. On average, he found, less than 16 percent of each college's students came away with associate's degrees.
Among East Bay schools, College of Alameda and Merritt College fared best, graduating just over 23 percent of their students. Vista and Diablo Valley colleges, by contrast, had graduation rates of about 13 percent, while Los Medanos in Pittsburg graduated less than 10 percent of students. Judson's conclusion: "Totally unacceptable."
The consultant concedes that it's unrealistic to expect these schools to award degrees at the same rate as Cal State or University of California -- which reported in 2003 that 78 percent of its freshmen earned a degree within six years. Community colleges, after all, serve a whopping 2.9 million state residents, many of whom are mid-career types taking classes to hone their skills. Ron Taylor, Chabot's VP of academic services, estimates that as many as half of the school's enrollees aren't on a degree path. "It's almost our entire evening student body, part-time students," he says.
But community colleges are supposed to be degree-granting institutions, Judson says. The low graduation rates, he argues, occur largely because these colleges market themselves as transfer institutions. "Their emphasis is on getting as many people to take as many classes as they can," he says, adding that the schools do little to encourage students to finish their degrees.
There's some truth to this claim. Linda Michalowski, a spokeswoman for the office of Mark Drummond, chancellor of California Community Colleges, says the schools have mandatory services designed to keep students on their career paths. But two years ago, funds for these services were cut by a third, while student fees increased from $11 per credit hour in 2002 to $26 per credit hour this fall. In addition to budget woes -- statewide enrollment was 175,000 students less than community college officials predicted last year -- she says low graduation rates remain "a problem for us in the sense that people often inquire why that percentage is not greater."
But it's not just community colleges that fail to emphasize the two-year credential. Of nearly four hundred Bay Area employers Judson contacted in a recent survey, nearly all, he says, had openings that favored candidates with an associate's degree -- BART, for example, reported 22 such positions -- yet almost none said as much in their employment listings. In a parallel survey of classified ads, Judson found that for every five hundred ads, only about two mentioned a preference for an associate's degree.
It's no secret that higher education boosts earning potential. A 2002 Census report estimated that a full-time worker with an associate's degree earns 33 percent more over the average career span ($1.6 million in 1999 dollars) than a high-school graduate ($1.2 million), while a bachelor's degree ($2.1 million) brings in 75 percent more than a high-school diploma. And with the university system increasing fees and GPA requirements for admission, community colleges will almost certainly remain the most viable option for the majority of California college hopefuls.
For this reason, Judson says his firm is compiling an Employment Guide for the Associate Degree, a list of Bay Area employers, with job descriptions for positions where having an associate's degree will help candidates get hired. Yet it's unclear just how much of an impact this will have on the students. "They're not your traditional eighteen- to twenty-year-olds just out of high school," says Jannett Jackson, VP of instruction at the College of Alameda. "A lot of people coming in are really not looking at graduating."
Chabot's Taylor points to a different trend: "Many students fulfill their requirements for transfer, but don't file for their degree," he says, although he can't put a number on it.
Nevertheless, Judson says, community colleges have a responsibility to make sure their constituents get the most bang for their buck, and that means a degree. "You're almost nobody if you don't have a diploma," he says. "You're a drag on society."
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