What's Behind Enrollment Declines at Community Colleges?

Monday, April 5, 2021 - Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College, joins Jeff and Michael to talk about the precipitous decline in enrollments in community colleges since COVID-19 and to reflect on what it will take to boost student outcomes at community colleges.

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Transcript

Jeffrey Selingo:

Hey, Michael. As our listeners know, we now have a first lady in the White House, Jill Biden, who is also a community college instructor. And so that's putting a spotlight on this sector, which rolls about a quarter of undergraduates in the US.

Michael Horn:

Yes, but that attention, Jeff, as you know, is a double-edged sword for the sector as well. The outcomes of community colleges, aren't always something the tier institutions want to tout.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Very true, Michael. In fact, when we tried to get a community college president to come on with us today to talk about the issues facing the sector right now in the pandemic, we got lots of nos. But Michael Baston said yes. And today we have the president of Rockland Community College in New York with us on Future U.

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Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So a lot to dive into in this episode of Future U with a focus on community colleges. Last fall and this winter, you probably saw all the headlines about enrollment at US community colleges plummeting. It was something that caught our attention as well, because typically two-year colleges are places where people go in a poor job market. Indeed, enrollment at two-year colleges skyrocketed during the 2008 recession.

Michael Horn:

And Jeff, we're going to dive deep into an analysis later on in the second half of the show that there might be other reasons, frankly, for the reported drop in enrollment. But it's not only this enrollment number that has put community colleges on the front page, recently. As you mentioned at the top of the show, First Lady, Jill Biden, will be the first to balance a career with the job of first lady. And not just any career, it's a career teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah. And so that means it's a good time I think, to talk about the role of community colleges coming out of this pandemic a year after it started. You might remember that last spring we had with us Marcia Ballinger at Lorain County Community College in Ohio.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So today as a guest, we have Michael Baston, who is president of Rockland Community College located just 25 more miles Northwest of New York City in the beautiful Hudson Valley. And of course, it's part of the giant SUNY system. Michael, it's great to have you with us today.

Michael Baston:

Glad to be here with you today.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. So a question that we love to ask our guests on Future U is how you got into higher ed as a profession. And it's one we definitely wanted to direct to you, because you started your career of course, as a public interest lawyer. And so how did you go from there, and why did you go from there to end up becoming a community college president?

Michael Baston:

One of the greatest experiences in my life was to be a student at Brooklyn law school because it enabled me to work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to work with Brooklyn Legal Services, to really do a lot of work in the community and in social justice. And then when I began to practice law as an attorney for educational corporations, religious institutions and nonprofits, I started to work with sort of those at the margin.

Michael Baston:

That led me to teaching to try to create that next generation of paralegals and people who would go to law school to be those social justice sort of engineers, those real folks on the ground to make things better. And those experiences led me from the classroom to leading institutions so that we can continue to create those educated citizens who really want to improve the quality of life for all people.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So Michael historically, enrollment in the community college sector rises during a recession because unemployed workers go back to school to get re-skilled or up-skilled. But a trend that Michael, the other Michael, my co-host and I, have been kind of watching since the pandemic a year ago, is that in the aftermath of the pandemic, we've actually seen enrollment in community colleges nationwide actually fall, including at Rockland Community College, which I think is about down about maybe 10% or so.

Jeffrey Selingo:

What's happening? Why is this not necessarily similar to other economic downturns or other changes in the economy over the last couple of decades?

Michael Baston:

You have to remember that the pandemic is a variable that didn't exist in other times. So the people that go to community colleges, many of them are the frontline workers. Many of them are the ones caring with people with COVID, had COVID themselves, are in the gig economy. So what money they would be able to use formerly for trying to go to school, they are actually on the frontline and they are the healthcare workers. They are the folks that are working in the Walmart. They're the Amazon folks that are driving the packages around.

Michael Baston:

And so if you look at our population that traditionally would come to us, those folks have been impressed into the service. The most fragile economically, are on the frontline trying to provide for all of us. And so they have to make a decision. Am I going to be able to go to college at this time? Or am I going to be in a situation where the gig economy opportunities will take care of me and my family, as all of the businesses around have had a lot of difficulty.

Michael Baston:

So, you have to remember that our population are the population that are the sickest, the poorest, and those who are on the frontline.

Michael Horn:

It's an interesting set of dynamics. I'm curious also, given so many campuses obviously shifted to remote learning, but community colleges, for the most part, don't have a strong history in online learning, but they're very strong in the communities with hands-on learning.

Michael Horn:

How much did the mission and sort of pedagogical approach, if you will, historically, of two-year colleges contribute to those enrollment declines, on top of the factors that you were just listing out?

Michael Baston:

I don't think the issue is as much about the modality. Remember that students that come to community colleges come here because they want small class sizes. They want face-to-face hands on instruction. They want to be in an environment where they actually can be in a physical space where they can do the things that they need to do for school.

Michael Baston:

Now, if you are a person whose home life is such that you can't actually do a correspondence type course, that's not going to be the appropriate environment and modality for them. So that's why generally, community colleges have not been sort of in the virtual space, this sort of correspondence type of experience. Community college students want small class sizes. They want intimate relationships with professors. They want to be able to have the physical space to do the work.

Michael Baston:

And if you are looking at our students and particularly the ones that have that economic fragility, they don't necessarily have multiple computers where their spouse can be on the computer, their child can be doing schoolwork. They may not necessarily have a physical environment that is conducive to focus on education, which is why they like to come to the community college because you have a sense of place in that environment.

Michael Baston:

So I think that it's not just this idea of the modality of our offerings, as much as understanding the kind of student that comes to us and the purposes for which they come to us.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So let's talk about what's next then, right? Because as momentum builds for vaccines and the country's slowly beginning to reopen, it's unclear how fast the economy will recover, but a lot of economic signs are pointing to a potentially faster recovery, at least than recent recessions, particularly since the 2008, 2009 recession.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So how well positioned is Rockland and community colleges in general, do you think to ride the wave of economic recovery, given that's where enrollment might actually drop instead in past recessions?

Michael Baston:

Well, I think what we are looking at in the community college space is, the shorter term credentials. We are very agile in that way. First of all, you're seeing the rise of new industries as a result of the pandemic. You're going to see a greater reliance on the health care, the allied health folks that are going to be needed as we move forward. Those are going to be in telecommunications. That's going to be a big need moving forward. And those are going to require shorter term credentials that the community college can actually offer, that quite frankly, our four-year partners don't want to offer.

Michael Baston:

And so you have to understand that as we move and sort of proceed into this new sort of resetting of the economic factors that the community college with the agility, the flexibility will really move into this space, that we are actually creating the ladders with micro-credentialing and the like, that actually will get folks into those family supporting and sustaining wages, but also on a ladder to higher levels of opportunity. And so I think that is a very important aspect of what the community college brings to the higher education ecosystem.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So that's interesting, Michael, it's interesting, because we think of community colleges, I think historically, in the legacy model is of that transfer institution, or at least of the associate's degree. So I guess the question, if we are going to move in and Michael Horn and I, every other show we talk about micro-credentials, and that's the future and things like that, but we also have to define success. And as you know, up there in Albany and in your county and in your community, success is defined as retention and graduation.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And so how are we going to define success for these new credentials? Because if we just think about the community college sector, for example, 40% of all US undergraduates in the US begin their journey at a community college. 80% these numbers, 80% say they intend to transfer to a four-year college, but only 14% do earn a bachelor's degree within six years of starting at a two-year college.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Now, you've been focused and we'll talk about this in a second on guided pathways and articulation agreements with the likes of Pace University, for example. And we're definitely going to ask you about those, but I want to know how do you kind of change the culture around how we define student success in community colleges? Because if we continue to define it as, "Oh, Rockland's not succeeding because students aren't transferring to four-year colleges." But meantime, you're on the other side of the college there, offering all these micro-credentials, getting people into jobs. That seems to me like success, right?

Jeffrey Selingo:

So how do you start to change the conversation, whether that's in Albany, whether that's in your county, whether that's among other stakeholders? How do you do that?

Michael Baston:

Well, I think first and foremost, we got to understand that success is not dependent solely on the community college in the economic and the educational ecosystem. All the players have to play in a different way because we're in a different world. The reality is, there has to be greater engagement with K to 12, with the community based organizations and with partnerships between four-year and two-year institutions, such that we can really place an emphasis on pathways to opportunity that lead to family supporting and sustaining wages. And that we have to be much more sort of thoughtful, even from the political levers.

Michael Baston:

If the federal government continues to determine that the shorter term credentials are not going to be eligible for financial aid, when we're coming into a time where shorter term credentials, particularly for the adult learner, are going to be essential for the upskilling and getting them where they need to be in this whole new world that we're moving into, then that is a mistake. And so we've got to engage our federal partners into helping us to reassess exactly how we place value. How do we bring the employers into the conversation of the value propositions to move people through shorter term credentials on ladders to higher levels of opportunity, so that they can make a difference in the companies and the communities where these institutions are located?

Michael Baston:

So I think the resetting and the reframing is not just limited to the community college. If this country wants to remain competitive, we have to think about the ecosystem as a whole and how we begin to address each segment in a more integrated way.

Michael Baston:

And one last thing I would say, is this idea of the many, many students that have some college and no degree. So if we're going to really talk about success, there's so many more people that start college in the four-year space, and don't ultimately have a degree. And would you say those institutions are not successful? They're still producing lots of folks that are successful.

Michael Baston:

So I think we've got to reset the conversation nationally, about how we create the most educated community that can be competitive and innovative, so that we can retain, or sort of regain our footing in the world, in terms of being an innovative country.

Michael Horn:

Michael, there's a couple of strands there that I want to unpack, because you made a few really important points there. But let's start with the systematic point that you were making and the ecosystem, and specifically talk about guided pathways and the articulation agreements that you've hammered out.

Michael Horn:

Can you obviously, give our listeners a sense of what those are and briefly describe them? But more to the point, give us a sense of how they're part of the answer to improving student success in community colleges?

Michael Baston:

Just think about equitable transfer, for example. If we are not very intentional about ensuring that there's a partnership between the two-year and the four-year institutions, that actually can then build a bridge of opportunity for more diverse candidates to actually begin to provide a more diverse community within higher education. If we're not thinking about how we are going to do dual admissions programs and how we are going to address the equity gaps that exist in the four-year space because of the unintentional collaborations with community colleges, if we're not going to begin to think about how we begin to braid a structure, that's not just about academic articulation of credits, but also the non-academic factors that impact students' ability to move from a four-year to a two-year.

Michael Baston:

Are we going to look at advisement at both institutions? Are we going to look at recruitment and enrollment at both institutions? Are we going to look at data sharing and how we are moving people through the system? Are we going to look at how faculty practice is engaged? How are we getting the faculties to begin to collaborate in a more realistic way? And how are we looking at the academic programs, both at the community college level and the four-year college level, in relationship to the economic opportunities connected to employment? And how is that not a conversation that two and four-years have together with business and industry, so that ultimately we are creating bridges to somewhere instead of bridges to nowhere.

Michael Baston:

It pains me that we have students that take lots of credits, lots of places, and some don't go anywhere, ultimately. They don't graduate, not even at the two-year to four-year, all of these. And we are missing the opportunity to connect with business and industry so that we can actually move our country forward.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. Important set of points. As we wrap up, I'd love to spend a little bit talking about the future of community colleges. As you know, we have a first lady who teaches in the sector and talks often about the importance of community college and the institutions that they represent in their communities. We have several states with robust programs for free community college. You talked about on the flip side, though, we're having a debate about short term Pell, right? And will we decrease the eligibility for programs, so that more programs can be eligible for a Pell.

Michael Horn:

But you've been part of the Aspen Institute Presidential Fellows Program, where you see the next generation of leaders in the sector. And so even beyond the current moment, I'd love to hear you reflect on what's next, what makes you most optimistic and what makes you most worried as well?

Michael Baston:

Well, I think that what makes me most optimistic is now everyone is grappling with the structural racism that ultimately higher education can be a catalyst to starting to change things around. And so I think that there is an opportunity now for us to be very front and center about how we use education as an equalizer for communities all around this country.

Michael Baston:

And so I am hopeful that in this moment, equitable transfer will become a major league issue, making sure that people are recruited into academic programs, where we have not had appropriate diversity or appropriate outcomes, making sure that the key things that have been stagnant in our country get addressed.

Michael Baston:

What I am concerned about quite frankly, is this idea that we will continue to sort of have a caste system of opportunity in the country, where certain institutions are held in high esteem and appropriately supported, and others are not. And that sort of educational caste system plays itself out into the structural racism that we're trying to address and the things that we're trying to dismantle.

Michael Baston:

And I think that now is the time to have that conversation and to have it front and center. And there are not enough vehicles and outlets that are actually having those very hard conversations, but we can do better. Every time our country has focused in on trying to do the right thing, we have stepped up to the plate and we have done better. And so I think this is a pivotal moment not to miss this moment to put both feet on the ground and say, "We need to take steps beyond statements to make a difference."

Michael Horn:

All right. That's incredibly helpful, Michael, and really appreciate you being with us on Future U to break apart these important issues. And thanks so much for joining us.

Michael Baston:

Great to be with you.

Michael Horn:

And we'll be right back on Future U.

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Michael Horn:

Welcome back to Future U and that conversation with Michael Baskin, president of Rockland Community College. And Jeff, there's something we teased at the top of the show about the decline in community college enrollment. Now the headlines recently have been about that drop since the pandemic, but Phil Hill, who is a wonderful commentator on the space more broadly, in his blog, PhilOnTech, just had an interesting analysis on community college enrollment that goes all the way back to 2012.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yes. He found that looking at fall enrollment data through 2019, that roughly half of the reported enrollment declines have come from community colleges adding bachelor's degree options, changing their names, and thus being reclassified from public two-year to public four-year colleges. The same colleges with primarily the same programs and policies are getting counted in different categories and artificially impacting the reporting on enrollment trends. It's even increased, he found, since 2015, when roughly 71% of the enrollment climbs in public two-year sector can be accounted for by these reclassifications.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Now he points out that none of this is to say that there are no enrollment declines for community colleges. And he added that we don't really know yet about how significant the sector switching issue is for the crucial pandemic enrollment estimates, which the National Student Clearinghouse said was down 10% from a year earlier. But it does point out Michael, that, especially for reporters, it's sometimes good to dig a little deeper on these numbers.

Jeffrey Selingo:

I've always been amazed that we tend to trust these numbers that are reported in government databases, all of which really come a lot from self-reporting. And sometimes, institutions by fudge the numbers, or there are simple errors. I think of a issue about a decade and a half ago when I was at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where George Mason University in Virginia had this eye-popping surge in the number of administrators and professional staff. It was 121% increase over a 10 year period.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And so when we did this big piece on administrative bloat, they reached the top of that list. And it was only after it appeared in the news media and they started getting a lot of questions that they realized that in a switch to a new computer system, some employees just weren't classified correctly. So it points out that we have to be careful, I think, sometimes when we're reporting these numbers.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Now, still, as Phil points out, there were enrollment declines. And we heard that even including at Rockland Community College.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. It's a good point, Jeff, because I think you can go to the individual community colleges, just, if someone's listening to this, check out the ones near you. Most of them experienced declines this past fall and even into the spring. And so the phenomenon is still alive and true.

Michael Horn:

I think with Phil, why that post was so interesting, was frankly that the poll of upmarket for colleges to add degrees and be longer, two-years be thought of four-years, four-years add masters and then PhDs and so forth. That isomorphism look like Harvard sort of pull in higher ed is alive and well. And I would argue, it creates the power for disruption, frankly, the faster and cheaper degrees that our friend Ryan Craig writes about a lot. Because it leaves room at the bottom of the market, if you will, for new institutions to come into that market and serve those spaces.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, Mike, I want to dive a little bit deeper on that, because you recently wrote in Forbes that most community colleges are structurally unable to deliver reliably on what we think of as their missions. One, academic transfer; two, career preparedness and training; and three, community enrichment.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, the question then is, what should a community college do to solve its inherent conflicts in mission? I mean, did you buy a lot of what President Baston said about outcomes?

Michael Horn:

Yeah. So on the outcomes piece first, and then I'll backward map into the question before that, Jeff. What I heard from Michael was a lot about how the system more broadly needs to step up together as in, it's not just the community colleges, but it's all the other four-year institutions around them, the resources and the like. And all of those, I think you could argue are valid points.

Michael Horn:

But to me, higher education, each institution needs to adopt the same mindset that high performing K-12 schools did a decade or two ago, which is to basically have a no excuses mindset, that we're going to make sure students are successful. And leaders need to focus on controlling what they can control. And we're going to do what Georgia State University did, for example. We obviously spotlighted them just recently and they said, "We're going to take the resources that we do have and rethink our own processes and how we use them to make sure that we're doing everything possible to make each student can realize a successful outcome," as they define it and have had stunning success, and I think that's the key thing.

Michael Horn:

And what I wrote in that piece that you referenced, is that community colleges, to me, they first have to clarify and focus on one of those missions that you mentioned. They can't be all things to all people. And so for any given program, you pick one of those. Maybe it's career preparedness, and then you optimize everything around that. And only accept students who are looking to do that and basically have a job to be done that's consistent with your program's mission. And that means don't accept students who say, want to transfer schools to a program that is designed explicitly to place them into a job.

Michael Horn:

And I think that relates to the third thing, which ties back to the outcomes conversation, which is in my mind, a lot of community colleges correctly complain that measuring their performance by graduation rates, for example, or the transfer rate stat that you posed to Michael, it does mislead because not every student is enrolling to get the degree or to transfer. Some of them, they just want to get a few skills, they get promoted and boom, they're out, right? But once the students accomplish that purpose and get that promotion, for example, they drop out, right? Because earning a degree, wasn't a critical part of their jobs to be done.

Michael Horn:

And in my mind, in that instance, the community college was successful in helping the student make progress, but they get penalized by a traditional measure. And so, it's a legitimate gripe. But then to me, you don't just gripe about it, you say, "Okay, these are the outcomes that we're responsible for. These are the relevant ones. Let's measure them and hold ourselves accountable to them."

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah. I think that's a really important point about what you're measuring against. When me and you first started to talk about the declines in community college enrollment, it was last fall, you mentioned to me the lack of online infrastructure at many two-year colleges. And we keep talking about community colleges at the forefront of higher education, right? There are these nimble institutions. But is that really the case, or do some of them have more of an antiquated mentality?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, look, I thought Michael raised some good points about how expectations for students in community colleges are for the institutions to be hands-on and in person, and that just hasn't been possible. And I particularly thought his points, frankly, about how these students are expected to be on the front lines, helping our society stay afloat was really salient.

Michael Horn:

That said, you even heard it in his language. When he described online learning, he called it correspondence courses or correspondence learning. That's the mindset. That could have been the OIG and The Department of Education talking or certain editors in the media who cover higher ed, or your small liberal arts college professor. And so I think that does show that there is a mindset that they have, where they just don't see online learning as that valid or valuable resource.

Michael Horn:

And you look at a program like Duet in Boston that basically took match charter school's DNA around the no excuses mindset and combined it with Southern New Hampshire's College for America online competency-based program. They get stunning outcomes for their students. We did an ROI calculation for them and it is significantly better on any metric than a community college.

Michael Horn:

And you also look at Southern New Hampshire Western Governor's Arizona State University, they're serving the same population of students often that are attracted to community colleges, and their enrollments have grown dramatically during this. So to me, it says actually some of these students might be really interested in an online experience. They just want a good one.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah. So I want to drill down on one of the jobs to be done and that's the transfer job of community colleges, because it's been suggested that this is a way for students to save money coming out of the pandemic and for four-year colleges to bolster their enrollment. And as we know, some four-year colleges are really struggling on the enrollment front.

Jeffrey Selingo:

But this pathway really has never seemed to work beyond some very notable examples, right? Like Direct Connect at UCF in Florida, the University of Central Florida. But even there, it's a partnership with six colleges in the state; six mostly two-year colleges.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So what happens if students need to leave the state and they want to transfer? I mean, can we ever fix this pipeline, and how can we do it?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, look, you know this issue really well, because you've covered this space for a long time, obviously. But in the spring when the pandemic hit, this is what spurred my paper, creating seamless credit transfer that we've talked about, where it's the same reason why hospitals systems, they don't want your electronic health record to port easily to another system. They want to keep you and they want to make it hard for you to transfer.

Michael Horn:

And academics in the higher ed context, they have all sorts of reasons they don't want to make it easy to transfer. There's the economic business model of getting tuition reason. There's a genuine concern that perhaps the work won't be equivalent. Your version of econ 101 is meaningfully different from mine, perhaps. Or they often have different requirements for majors or graduation, for example. And in that case, they might accept your credit, but they're not going to count it toward the major. So you're going to still have to take more courses and spend more money for it to really count in any way. And some of these, I think are cynical reasons and some of them are no doubt genuine.

Michael Horn:

But I guess in the absence of two things, Jeff, I'm super skeptical we're going to resolve that. And one of them is assessments of competencies that are third party given ideally by an industry body, that they mean something to industry. And by assessment, I don't necessarily mean sort of multiple choice, standardized tests sort of things, but real, performance-based industry recognized credentials.

Michael Horn:

And then second, I think in the absence, honestly, of a new value chain of providers that benefit from doing direct assessment and not holding onto a student, just out of a desire for more credit hours, for example. So, yes, I'm talking about the WGUs and SNHUs of the world. It's almost impossible, I think, to come to a meeting of the minds on this.

Michael Horn:

You cited the example of Florida, which is often people's example, but that really is a very deep set of articulation agreements that make that work. It is very logistically challenging to do that at any scale, unless we create a new system in my mind. And just one of the things, Jeff, that occurs to me on that front, we're just thinking about the system, because I do think one thing Michael said was interesting, in terms of the conversation around systemic racism he brought up. And I'll betray myself here. I'm often in the Ibram Kendi camp here, that it doesn't make sense to talk about systemic racism, because it sort of lets us all off the hook, if you will, from the actual nodes that are causing the racist behavior.

Michael Horn:

But I did think he made a perfect point that encapsulated systemic racism, as we think about the system, which is ranking institutions based on prestige and the biases that that creates throughout the system. In other words, that the quality quote, unquote of the students you let in on the front end somehow determines whether you are a good or bad institution. And ASU, I think, stands as a striking counterexample to that, right?

Michael Horn:

And obviously, it extremely well, Jeff, but you always talk about how you walk around the campus. And everyone knows that ASU measures its success, not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed and the value add or distance traveled. And I do think Michael made a really important point that we should grapple with more in this sector, which is thinking about the value added or distance traveled that we add to people's lives, not their starting points when they come in.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah, I think it's a really important point. And I think we've run out of time for this episode. So please keep those questions coming in on Twitter and social media. We're going to be getting to some of them in some future episodes, but that's all we have time for today. So thanks for listening and stay safe.

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