Detroit Free Press

On the surface, the numbers are dismal.

According to the latest federal data, only 15% of community college students in Michigan earn a two-year associate degree in three years.

About 60% of community college freshmen need remedial classes (essentially, remedial classes in subjects they should have learned in high school), which students must pay for and pass before they can start earning university credits.

And enrollment at community colleges across the state is down.

“It certainly doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of something we should be proud of,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, which advocates for more Michigan residents earning college degrees and college degrees. two- or four-year university certificates.

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, which represents the state’s 28 community colleges, agrees, “We have our job to do.

But Hansen and Johnson say the bleak federal data can be misleading because the numbers don’t take into account the complexity of the student populations served by community colleges.

Community colleges serve a wide range of students, some of whom have been out of high school for years before enrolling. The average age of a community college student in the 2013-2014 school year was 26.4.

Two-thirds of Michigan’s roughly 213,000 community college students are enrolled part-time and more than half are taking classes with the goal of transferring to a four-year college, most without worrying about earning a degree. partner for two years.

Students who transfer to another four-year college or university without earning an associate degree are not counted as having graduated from the federal government.

A prime example of this type of student is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who earned 25 high school college credits through a dual enrollment program at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek and transferred them to the University of Michigan. .

Hansen said community colleges encourage students looking to transfer to a four-year college to earn associate degrees before they leave, both as a way to boost graduation rates and provide students with a valuable credential. in the labor market.

“If you’re taking accounting courses at a community college with the intention of transferring to Michigan State University for a four-year accounting degree, you should at least get an associate’s degree in accounting just in case. things wouldn’t work out at MSU,” Hansen said.

Hansen said he even encouraged Snyder, who often talks about the value of a degree or two-year degree, to get an associate’s degree. It would symbolize the value of a community college education, he said.

Snyder plans to earn his associate’s degree, likely by seeking community college credit for credits he earned at the University of Michigan, spokesman David Murray said.

While the federal government measures community college graduation rates based on the number of students who graduate in three years, the state says the measure is too restrictive due to the high percentage of part-time students and other factors.

“Life gets in the way sometimes,” Hansen said.

The Michigan Education Scorecard measures the percentage of students who graduate, earn a certificate, or transfer to another college or university within six years.

Community colleges have made progress in this regard, as 52% of their students graduated or transferred last year, up from 44% in 2007.

The percentage of community college students who need remedial courses before they can earn math and English credits also fell slightly, from 63% in 2010 to 60% last year, according to another chart. edge of state.

While these statistics remain dismal, the high percentage of remedial courses required by community colleges is a national problem. A 2012 study by Complete College America found that more than 50% of community college students needed remedial courses, costing them $3 billion in 2011. Students must take remedial courses to acquire skills they should have learned. in high school are also more likely to drop out of college, according to the Complete College America study and others.

Some attribute the high rates of remedial work to the fact that community colleges, unlike most universities, are open to all students with a high school diploma or equivalent. Community colleges are also seeing more immigrant students who speak English as a second language and need remedial reading lessons.

“We are an open admissions environment,” said Tim Meyer, chancellor of Oakland Community College, based in Bloomfield Hills outside Detroit, which has 27,000 students.

The remedial classes are “an acknowledgment of need rather than a failure of the system”, he said.

But Hansen said community colleges are working to reduce the need for remedial classes, which can take a semester or an entire school year. Improving diagnostic assessments might reveal that students need to brush up on a few math concepts, for example, rather than needing a full remedial course.

“The average age of our students is almost 27,” Hansen said. “Sometimes they knew these things but forgot them.”

Community colleges also need to improve student retention, which could lead to higher graduation rates, said Johnson of the Michigan College Access Network.

The percentage of freshmen at community colleges who were still enrolled in sophomores rose from 74% in 2010 to 71% in 2013, according to the Snyder administration’s scorecard.

Community colleges should provide students with a better, more carefully tailored roadmap to earning a two-year degree or credential, Johnson said.

“There needs to be much more structured pathways for students, instead of giving them lots of choices which can be a waste of time,” she said.

Economy up, enrollment down

Michigan’s community colleges are also seeing declining enrollment, which could hold Michigan back from improving its academic achievement rate at a time when experts say having a two- or four-year college degree is essential to get a good job.

Fall enrollment at community colleges fell from a record high of 260,179 students in 2010 to 212,867 students this year, a drop of 47,312 students or 18%.

Enrollment has fallen this year at 25 of Michigan’s 28 community colleges, according to the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers.

Only Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Henry Ford College in Dearborn and Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek saw an increase in enrollment.

Traditionally, community college enrollment rises when Michigan’s cyclical economy is bad and falls when it improves.

Hansen said many students find jobs after graduating from high school or leaving college early to take a job because employers can’t wait for them to complete their programs.

The State House Fiscal Agency said in a 2013 report that Michigan community college enrollment would likely continue to decline.

Contributing to the decline is a decrease in the population of high school graduates as the state’s school-age population declines.

But Johnson said more low-income students could enroll if they knew about the availability of federal Pell grants and how to get them. Pell grants provide tuition based on need for low-income students. The maximum individual grant for the 2014-15 academic year is $5,730, which Johnson says can more than cover community college tuition.

She said the state could also encourage more community college enrollment by increasing the overall availability of need-based financial aid.

The Snyder administration counters that the state increased aid to community colleges by 23% between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2015, from $296 million to $365 million. The increase includes funding for operations and assistance with retiree expenses.

But the funding of $365 million for fiscal year 2015 is stable compared to the $294.3 million allocated in 2005 after adjusting for inflation.

And the state’s share of community college revenue fell from nearly 50% in 1980 to 19.5% in 2013.

Michigan began transferring funds from the Academic Aid Fund in 2012 to support much of the community college budget. Nearly 55% of funds allocated to community colleges will come from the fund in 2015.

But the state appropriated an additional $28.7 million from the general fund for community colleges in fiscal year 2015, an increase of 2%.

“Governor Snyder recognizes the importance of community colleges and the impact they have on students as well as job providers looking for people with in-demand skills. They play a vital role and the investment of the state reflects that,” spokesman David Murray said.

Rick Haglund had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government in newspapers across the state.

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