December 4, 2010


TC3 worries about push to tie aid to degrees

Federal government wants completed degrees, but college says that’s not always the goal

TC3Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Tompkins Cortland Community College English professor Bruce Need teaches a class in April 2009. An initiative to increase the number of college students who complete their four- and two-year degrees could impact the amount of federal education aid TC3 receives.

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — A new push to increase the number of Americans with college degrees is causing concern among Tompkins Cortland Community College academic leaders.
The “completion agenda” from the U.S. Department of Education will impact the State University of New York, as the federal government begins to base aid to SUNY on how many actual degrees its students complete. That way of gauging academic success will be passed by SUNY to the community colleges.
The problem: many community college students take courses for one or two years and then transfer to four-year colleges without an actual degree in hand.
TC3 emphasizes transferring specific courses more than finishing a degree and then transferring, because four-year colleges are more interested in whether students have required courses, not in a degree itself.
“Completing a degree is deeply meaningful for most degrees but not for degrees offered by a community college,” said Provost John Conners. “We have many students who do not finish, for a variety of reasons, and many who transfer without finishing the degree. To New York state, that means we failed — it’s attrition.”
Conners and college President Carl Haynes worry that state aid could be tied to how many students finish their associate of applied science or associate of science degrees.
TC3 graduated 274 students with the AAS and 385 with the AS last May. But the college has no definite numbers on how many other students transferred without finishing.
The college has no way to estimate how many students transfer without finishing associate’s degrees.
Conners said many others finish two or three semesters and then transfer. Some take time off first, due to a lack of money or time or firm direction on what they want to study and at which college.
“Many of our students are on the edge, in socio-economic factors,” Conners said. “They could withdraw because they lost child care or due to a family illness. So many things can push a student away.”
Most students come to TC3 with the idea of transferring — far more than 10 years ago, said Heather Stevens, coordinator of transfer services at TC3.
“Many don’t expect to be here even two years,” she said, “but then they love it here and stay. Some think they should be here for two years, then realize the four-year degree program will take them after one year in some majors.”
The focus on degree numbers comes from the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, a group formed by the College Board to analyze how the U.S. can improve its education system and, with it, the nation’s place in the world economy.
The commission says the U.S. must increase the percentage of its people ages 25-34 who have at least an associate’s degree to 55 percent by 2025.
As of 2007, the commission says, that number was 40.4 percent, 12th in the world. The top four were Canada (55.8 percent), South Korea (55.5), Russia (55.5) and Japan (53.7).
America fared better in overall people with college degrees, ranking sixth at 40 percent. Russia was first with 54 percent, followed by Canada (48), Israel (43.6), Japan (41) and New Zealand (41). The U.S. ranked fourth in people ages 55-64 with degrees, at 38.5 percent, behind Russia (44.5), Israel (43.5) and Canada (38.9).
President Barack Obama has been stressing concrete measures of education success, in such programs as his Race to the Top federal funding for states.
TC3 officials said some community colleges are discussing whether to award students a certificate after every year, just to give the government something to quantify.
Conners said the advising staff and faculty would be placed in a difficult situation if the state insists on playing the numbers game.
“Think of the student with 45 credits, who tells his professor that he’s going to transfer to Cornell,” Conners said. “Ethically, does the professor tell the student to do what he wants, what he thinks is best for him? Or tell him it is best to finish his associate’s degree? It puts faculty in a bind.”
Stevens said Cornell and SUNY Cortland are top transfer destinations but she pushes students to look across the nation. Many international students transfer to the University of Michigan.


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