When the latest recession hit, community colleges saw an increase in enrollment numbers. That trend continued up until the economy started to improve and many of the students that had flocked to community colleges returned to the job force.
While enrollment numbers are now on the decline, the popularity of community colleges in those recession years offers a reminder of the important economic role they play in our culture: community colleges attract a high rate of low-income students looking to use education as a bridge into better work and earning opportunities.
President Obama’s Community College Proposal
All that helps explain why President Obama recently took the controversial step of proposing to make two years of community college free to every student that maintains a 2.5 GPA and a 50% attendance rate. As a college degree of some sort is now required for an ever-growing number of job types, the goal of the $60 billion plan is to help bring those jobs within reach of a larger portion of the population.
Criticisms of the Plan
Obviously, a plan of this magnitude and cost has its detractors. Some of the main criticisms people have are as follows:
1. It’s expensive. This is the most obvious complaint. Someone has to pay for all of the administrative costs of running a school and for professors to teach classes. If the plan drives an increase in enrollment (which seems likely), then all of those attendant costs will go up as well. In Missouri, a similar plan has struggled to keep up with the costs.
2. It doesn’t address the skills gap. The goal of the community college plan is to help more people get better jobs, but businesses keep saying that college graduates don’t make good hires. In order for the community college plan to produce the economic results the administration hopes for, the skills gap has to be addressed.
3. Students won’t have the incentive to work hard. Then of course there’s the idea that people never appreciate things they don’t have to earn or pay for themselves. If community college doesn’t cost students anything, what’s the incentive for them to try?
How Assessment Can Help
Assessment won’t fix all of the aforementioned problems, but it can help alleviate some of the concerns people have. The first complaint is the hardest to address with assessment. Committing to embedded assessment won’t bring the costs of providing education down (although switching to computer-based testing will help a bit), but it will help with student retention. If students actually stick with the programs they start, they (and any taxpayers helping pay for their education) will receive more of a return on their investment.
The same aspect of assessment that helps with retention helps address complaint number three as well. President Obama made it clear that the plan wouldn’t be free for everyone; it would be “free for everybody who is willing to work for it.”
Two of the biggest benefits of better assessment are that it helps educators track the progress of their students and it helps students monitor their own progress. Not all students have trouble because they lack the desire to work. Sometimes all they need is better feedback to know how to improve their study habits. Embedded assessment gives faculty the opportunity to see who’s struggling and to step in sooner, while also giving the students who want to succeed the data they need to do so.
As for the skills gap, if a school commits to helping students learn the skills that employers say they need the most, assessment can be used to make sure it’s happening. ExamSoft lets teachers tag exam questions and other assignments to the skills and competencies they want to cover, which helps them make sure their curriculum covers those skills effectively and lets them track how well students are doing in learning those skills.
Assessment on its own doesn’t solve everything, but it can be a powerful tool in the larger plan to address the challenges facing community colleges.