In California, Community College Graduation Rates Disappoint

Saturday, July 14, 2007; 10:24 PM

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- For most of history, higher education has been reserved for a tiny elite.

For a glimpse of a future where college is open to all, visit California -- the place that now comes closest to that ideal.

California's community college system is the country's largest, with 109 campuses, 4,600 buildings and a staggering 2.5 million students. It's also cheap. While it's no longer free, anyone can take a class, and at about $500 per term full-time, the price is a fraction of any other state's.

There is no such thing as a typical student. There are high achievers and low ones, taking courses from accounting to welding. There are young and old, degree-seekers and hobbyists -- all commingled on some of the most diverse campuses in the country, if not the world.

Many students, for one reason or another, simply missed the onramp to college the first time around -- people like 31-year-old Bobbie Burns, juggling work and childcare and gradually collecting credits at San Diego City College in hopes of transferring to a media program at a nearby university.

"I love City," Burns said, noting that once she transfers she'll face a less-flexible schedule and higher fees. "I wish I could keep going here."

These days, states around the country are wrestling with how to provide mass scale higher education -- a challenge California anticipated decades ago.

But if California is a model in one way, it's struggling in another.

The state ranks near the top in terms of getting students in the door of higher education. But its batting average moving them out -- either with a degree or by transferring to a four-year school -- ranks near the bottom.

"In 1960 or 1970 or 1980, access was enough," said Nancy Shulock, of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Cal State Sacramento. "But it's not enough now."

Of course, not everyone at community college is looking for a degree, so measuring success is tough. But several recent studies, including one by Shulock, have tried to identify students who are seeking such benchmarks as a certificate, associate's degree, or a transfer to a four-year school. Those studies have found that only about a quarter of such students in California succeed within six years. For blacks and Hispanics, the rates are even lower.

Boosting completion and transfer rates is high on the agenda of California policymakers. But opinions vary considerably as to why they're so low to begin with -- and what lessons others might draw from the state's experience.

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