The Bar-On Brief: Do not turn community colleges into diploma mills

In June, the California legislature finalized a plan that will encourage community colleges to confer degrees to students and allow them to transfer to four-year colleges by withholding funding from low-performing community colleges.

This is a flawed plan for three major reasons. First, encouraging community colleges to graduate students who are not ready for four year colleges is not feasible. Second, if a community college really is unable to move its students through the transfer process successfully, it does not make sense for the government to take away resources from that school rather than try to help it. Third, the plan fails to understand that not all community college students have the goal of transferring to a four-year institution.

Prior to this plan, community colleges would receive state funding based on the number of students they enrolled. This is a logical approach: Provide community colleges resources based on the number of students in their system because all students deserve access to the same resources from the state. From the state’s perspective, everyone is provided with an equal opportunity.

Supporters of the plan, which was spearheaded by former Los Angeles community college trustee and Gov. Jerry Brown, say that it will promote competition among community colleges, ensuring that only the best will be funded by the government. But this only encourages community colleges to lower their academic standards to graduate more students.

If Brown is so set on putting this plan into action he must have schools track the potential grade inflation this new policy will surely cause. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office proposed this back in February, when Brown’s plan had just been released.

Based on data tracking grade inflation country-wide, community colleges are the only group of schools that have not been more lenient in awarding grades. At four-year colleges, GPAs are rising at the rate of 0.1 points per decade, as they have been for the past 30 years. The most common grade awarded by four-year and two-year college campuses is an A, with 42 percent of all students supposedly earning that grade.

At four-year schools, the rate at which top grades are being awarded has been going up roughly five to six percentage points each decade and are three times more common than they were in 1960. While the percentage of D and F grades at four-year colleges has been stable in recent years, the increase in the percentage of A grades is associated with fewer B and C grades, an Inside Higher Ed survey reveals.

In recent years, the distribution of the A grade has gone down in recent years.But with California’s plan, that could change. As Jim Mahler, president of California’s Community College Council said, these two-year colleges will become mere “diploma mills” if given financial incentive to graduate more students.

This could result in the admission and enrollment of students who are not qualified for four-year institutions. The last thing California needs is to send unqualified students to college and force mountains of debt on them only to see them struggle and find themselves unemployed with no way to pay it back.

The plan also makes little sense. As it reads, if a college does a poor job graduating students and preparing them for four-year college, the state will withhold resources. It would make far more sense to help that school improve by granting it more resources instead.

Finally, the plan overlooks the students who enter college with no degree objective. A number of high school students take community college classes to fulfill their course requirements, in addition to students who take courses for an associate’s degree or for no degree at all. These students still deserve to reap the benefits of their local community college.

While the new funding plan is expected to pass in California’s new budget, one can hope that lawmakers will realize the fallacies in their premises and the flaws in their projected goals. Nobody knows how long the plan will remain in action, but one thing is expected: There will be many more transfer students with perfect GPAs in California schools in the next few years.

Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore majoring in political science. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.