An Interview with Mark Scheider: The Community College – Are Taxpayers Getting their Money’s Worth?

Apr 5, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Mark, first of all, tell us about your present affiliation and what exactly you do?

I am currently Vice President, American Institutes for Research.

  1. Now, why should the average taxpayer be concerned about community college graduation rates?

Taxpayers subsidize community colleges through direct appropriations from state and local governments and through student grant programs (for example, federal Pell grants). Every student who drops out represents an investment by the taxpayer in that student’s education—an education that the student is not finishing.

In addition, students who earn degrees earn more money than high school graduates or dropouts. Taxpayers share directly in those higher wages through income taxes and also through other taxes (e.g., sales taxes). These are direct and measurable rewards to the taxpayer, but higher education, as is well known, leads to other desirable outcomes that benefit taxpayers and society more generally.

In short, when students drop out, taxpayers lose in several different ways.

  1. This may be a rhetorical question, but of all the students that are admitted, how many are actually community college material? In other words, how many students are simply there because there may be no employment for them, or perhaps they have not received adequate vocational/occupational guidance?

The issue of college readiness is front and center in today’s environment. Expect it to get even more central as states realize the high cost of dropouts and as the federal government continues to pivot from an emphasis on access to completion. The Administration’s new emphasis on productivity will also further the emphasis on college completions and hence college readiness.

  1. Mark, many community colleges have “developmental“ classes, or “remedial classes“ or “study skill classes“ or remedial math/ remedial reading. I realize this is a policy question, but should students not arrive at the community college prepared for the rigors of college?

Developmental education is a true disaster—it’s mostly a black hole from which students all too often never emerge. Student success rates are abysmally low for students with even one developmental education course and students who need three or four developmental education courses can have success rates in the single digits.

We need to fix the current system.

There are some promising efforts being tried out and we have to hope that we can identify new approaches that work. Connecticut is considering a radical overall of its approach to remedial education, eliminating all non-credit bearing remedial courses by 2014. Another promising approach is the overhaul of remedial math being developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. See

  1. On the other hand, many community colleges offer various electronic, computerized, technical courses- what are the graduation rates in those areas?

Some community colleges specialize in technology and have much higher success rates than other less specialized colleges. And technology should be broadly defined—it’s not only about high tech or advanced manufacturing. Some tech schools (e.g., the Tennessee techs) include programs in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and have great success in training and placing students.

  1. Let’s talk about “streamlining the degree path“. What do you mean by this?

The title of Complete College America’s recent study “Time is the Enemy” summarizes the problem clearly—the longer it takes for a student to earn their degree the more likely it is that something will happen to derail the student. CCA recommends such things as “block scheduling” in which students have a more compact schedule that (a) allows students to better coordinate their studies with other responsibilities (such as child care or work) and (b) keeps students on track by making sure that they can get the courses they need in the right order. CCA also advocates reforming remedial education to accelerate the rate at which students accumulate credits and earn degrees

  1. What exactly is the competency based model and what kind of changes would be needed?

The traditional way in which we award degrees is based on seat time—a student completes a prescribed number of courses/credits (e.g., 60 credits for an Associate’s degree). This in turn leads to “normal” expected times to earn degrees: two years for an Associate’s degree, four years for a Bachelor’s degree (of course, fewer and fewer students meet these time frames). But what happens if a student already has mastered the skills a course is designed to deliver? What happens if a student can master these skills in say 5 weeks instead of the standard 14 week semester? Why should they spend the extra time in a course when they have already achieved its learning goals?

Instead of seat time, competency based education focuses on outcomes of learning, emphasizing the measurement of the knowledge, skills, and behaviors students should possess at the end of a course of study. So rather than saying a student has mastered the skills by completing 14 weeks of study, competency based education says that when a student demonstrates mastery of defined outcomes they complete the course or the degree. This can dramatically shorten time to degree while ensuring that the student who earns the degree has demonstrated a mastery of a set of skills and competencies.

Western Governors University is the nation’s premier example of this approach.

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