by Ria Sengupta Bhatt

Deputy Director

Community Colleges Higher Ed Finance

A Missed Opportunity in the Proposed Community College Funding Formula

This legislative season has focused much attention on a fully online community college having the potential to meet the learning needs of underserved adults in California.  But the new community college funding formula proposal is just as critical to serving the needs of adults. There are many million adult workers who could benefit from the new funding formula if they are identified as a key target population and funded accordingly. 

The budget proposed by Governor Brown this year moves the state away from a community college funding system based on size to one that balances multiple priorities—adult learners’ need for education is not one of them. Historically, community colleges have received funding based primarily on student enrollment. Under Brown’s proposed formula, colleges would receive only half of their funding based on full-time equivalent student enrollment. The new proposal would also take college performance into account—25% of funding would come from a student success incentive grant based on the number of, and time-to-completion for, degrees and certificates earned. Student need for postsecondary education would also be factored in; the remaining 25% of funding for colleges would come from a supplemental grant that prioritizes low-income student enrollment.

Prioritizing student success and need in the funding formula is important and laudable, but just as critical is how those priorities are defined. The current proposal defines low-income enrollment as the number of students who receive a College Promise Grant fee waiver and first-time freshmen who receive a Pell grant, and defines student success as degrees, certificates, and transfers completed for any student. These measures do not adequately capture the needs of California’s just over one million adult (age 25+) community college students.

Financially incentivizing colleges to equitably serve adult returning students—through explicitly funding low-income adults’ need in the supplemental grant and their success in the student success incentive grant—would help the state make progress toward meeting its economic needs and increasing equity.

Adult students make up 40% of all community college students in California and are prioritized in the CCCCO’s Strategic Vision for Success as a group that needs to be better served by the system. Despite this, adult learners are not explicitly prioritized in the newly proposed funding formula—a missed opportunity. Our research shows that a deficit of more than 2 million adults with degrees and credentials by 2025 stands in the way of California meeting its economic needs. In addition, our state is home to 4.5 million adults between the ages of 25 and 64 who have attempted some college but did not complete, a disproportionate share of whom are low-income and/or people of color who face substantial challenges due to work and family obligations. As a result, they postpone their educational goals indefinitely. Yes, many of these adults might be accounted for in the proposal’s current definition of low-income, if they have applied for a College Promise Grant fee waiver. But the reality is this: not everyone who qualifies for a Promise Grant fee waiver applies. Furthermore, the current proposal does not require the supplemental funding to be used specifically on low-income students, let alone adult low-income students. In short, schools may receive additional funding for enrolling a specific population, but not be held accountable for supporting them through completion. Financially incentivizing colleges to equitably serve adult returning students—through explicitly funding low-income adults’ need in the supplemental grant and their success in the student success incentive grant—would help the state make progress toward meeting its economic needs and increasing equity. 

As discussions on how to amend the funding proposal continue, we must elevate the needs and outcomes of adult students. Let’s not shortchange this population that is so critical to our state’s prosperity, both in the near term and in the future.

While comparing funding formulas across states is complicated given their distinct systems, goals, and structures, there is precedent for prioritizing adult learners’ need and success in community college funding formulas. In Tennessee, community colleges receive additional funding based on outcomes for low-income, academically underprepared, and adult learners. In Illinois, additional weight is given to community college degrees earned by low-income, Black or Hispanic, STEM/healthcare majors, and adult learners. In both cases, schools are funded for outcomes, not just enrollment, of adult learners. As California’s formula continues to take shape, a similar approach could be adopted to incentivize colleges to not just enroll, but also support the success of adult students.

Online community college is a great opportunity for adults looking for short-term credentials but should not be the only institution which is financially incentivized to serve older students. As discussions on how to amend the funding proposal continue, we must elevate the needs and outcomes of adult students. Let’s not shortchange this population that is so critical to our state’s prosperity, both in the near term and in the future.

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