Report: Colleges Must Work to Retain Costly Dropouts

California's first-year dropouts benefited from $480 million in tax-funded grants and allocations in that time – more than any other state – says a study, "The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges", from the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., writes Nanette Asimov at the San Francisco Chronicle.

However, the 17-page report doesn't advocate cutting off dollars to schools. Instead, it urges colleges to do a better job of retaining students: making it easier for them to get the classes they need, rewarding colleges for reducing dropouts or penalizing them for failing to do so, writes Asimov.

"We need more systematic knowledge about what works," said Mark Schneider, author of the report and vice president of the research group. "We're talking about serious money by a system that can and should be doing better."

Peter MacDougall, chairman of California's Student Success Task Force, agrees.

California is beginning to recognize that its economy depends on good community colleges. So MacDougall is leading an effort to try to improve the system and help more students succeed.

"We can and have to do better," said MacDougall, whose task force has just released draft recommendations to be considered by the Legislature in February.

California students who dropped out before their second year benefited from $64 million in federal Pell grants, $25 million in state Cal Grants, and $390 million in state appropriations between 2004 and 2009, said Schneider, who examined numbers that colleges reported to the federal government.

But the task force and the study isn't short of solutions.

Among other things, allowing students to earn credits for proven competencies rather than simply through seat time is exactly what MacDougall is trying to zero in on.

"Common, centralized diagnostic assessments so students will understand where they're competent and where they need additional work. So they're not spending a whole course in remedial math, but on learning fractions if that's what they need."

But the task force recommendations skirt an area that "Hidden Costs" calls important: "rewarding colleges with more money if they improve the success of their students."

"Colleges need to be held more accountable for students' success," Schneider said. "They should be rewarded for doing the job and penalized for not doing it."

"If the history of other education reforms is a prologue to the future, many of the innovations that the nation is now pursuing will likely prove to be ineffective," the report says. Yet it says, "the only thing more expensive than fixing this problem is not fixing it."

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