Malloy is right to flatten the administration of higher ed

Speaking from the vantage point of 12 years as a full-time faculty member inside the community college system of Connecticut, I support Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal to “flatten” the currently bloated layers of higher ed administration.  This will save money, and it is also a golden opportunity to improve our college completion rates and serve our college population more efficiently and logically. A win-win situation for Connecticut!

As the situation exists now, after two years of college-level classes at the community colleges, too many of our students are horrified to discover that a large percentage of their community college work counts for nothing at our four-year institutions.

Why? Why do all twelve community colleges have separate and conflicting “general education requirements” and transfer programs?  This fragmented and chaotic situation has evolved over time because of too many cooks, too many chiefs, and too many turf battles.

Under the Malloy plan, the newly designated president of the board of regents could direct the twelve community colleges to align their programs so that two years of successful work in community college transfer programs would automatically mean students would enter the state’s four-year colleges as first semester juniors.  This president could also instruct the four campuses of the Connecticut State University System to get on-board this program. UConn will also be a valuable partner here.

The state lacks a chief student advocate; under the years of Republican governors there was a laissez-faire attitude (or simple lack of interest) toward the community colleges.   No one was looking at the big picture, and the various campuses became little fiefdoms, all thinking they were doing a stellar job in educating their students. But in fact students’ degree-completion and transfer needs often came second, after faculty and administration “druthers.” Faculty members’ desires to teach particular courses have often been privileged over students’ actual needs for those courses.

Our community colleges still don’t focus on academic advising or transfer. Too often students are on their own when it comes to deciding which courses they need in order to transfer.   This is not fair to the students who are among our least affluent and who are first-generation college enrollees in many cases. When students find that community college work doesn’t fulfill requirements at the four year institutions, they become disheartened and disillusioned, and they tend to fail to complete a degree–or they just plain can’t afford to do so, having already wasted time and money. (This of course is also a waste of state money, in that most students receive financial aid and the public colleges are supported by our tax dollars.)

Gov. Malloy is to be lauded for creating a stronger and less-layered Board of Regents headed by a president.  National research underscores the fact that these conflicts of interest and turf-wars can only really be resolved at the state level.  Scholar Vanessa Smith Morest in Defending the Community College Equity Agenda says,  “Analysts and college advocates have argued that opening transfer for community college students is increasingly important as the relative economic value of the bachelor degree has risen. Moreover, this will become that much more urgent if states expand their dependence on community colleges for lower-division education as a strategy to reduce the cost of higher education.  …  Although colleges can work to prepare their students for transfer, transfer policies must be developed at the state level.  Even the best-prepared, transfer-ready students will not be able to transfer if local four year colleges do not accept their transfer credits.” (Bailey and Morest. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.  pp260-261.)

Some may argue that transfer agreements already exist between the community colleges and the public universities in Connecticut.  This is true only for a few very specialized programs (such as engineering and some business pathways) that serve minuscule numbers of students.  And yes, we have the “Compact” and “GAP-UConn,” but both these programs include too much red tape and complication; again, they serve very few students.

Governor Malloy and various legislators are correct in stepping in to improve higher ed in Connecticut.  If we let go of some of the excess administrators, we could hold on to full-time faculty and other student-support service professionals, as Senator Beth Bye has pointed out.  There is a crying need for more of these professionals. At one community college within our system, there is one counselor to advise 2,000 students who plan to transfer to four-year schools.  How can one person possibly do that? Wouldn’t it be better to let go of some of the astronomically compensated administrators who rarely interact with students?  Wouldn’t it be better to have more hands-on people who work directly with the students on a daily basis — as teachers, advisors, and counselors?

It’s time to put the focus on the students and their needs to smoothly progress from the community colleges to the state four-year schools if they have the grades to do so. Let’s make sure the administrators in the offices of the various systems learn that they too must roll up their sleeves and work directly for the students.  Perhaps the top layer of administrators could all be required to teach a course every semester or to sit and advise for the equivalent of three credit-hours per semester; this would be part of their workload.  They would then truly engage with college students at public institutions in Connecticut today, and this greater understanding of the roadblocks and inconsistencies in the system would give them new eyes to see the situation as it is.

Let’s not pass up this opportunity to save money and also to straighten out some of the chaos in our state institutions of higher ed.  Senate Bill 1011 is a step in the right direction, and it’s long over-due.

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