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Accountability for Community Colleges: The Carrot or the Stick?

Another major contributor at TC to understanding both the potential and problems of community colleges is Kevin Dougherty, Associate Professor of Higher Education. In particular, Dougherty’s work has focused on accountability mechanisms for two-year institutions—or, as he puts it, “what the measures should be for community colleges’ success, how to make those measures consistent with community colleges’ values, and where to get the necessary data.”
Most recently, backed by a grant from the College Board, Dougherty provided recommendations for how the American Association of Community Colleges should approach designing its Voluntary Framework of Accountability for Community Colleges. Assisted by doctoral students Rebecca Natow and Rachel Hare, Dougherty looked at 10 states, half of which base at least a certain amount of community college funding on certain performance measures (for example, how many students graduate) and half that simply require community colleges to report performance data. Part of the research included asking institutions about problems they encountered with each of these approaches.
One of the issues of interest was whether performance accountability requirements might unfortunately cause community colleges to restrict their open door admission policies. Speaking about earlier research he had done under a Sloan Foundation grant to TC’s Community College Research Center, Dougherty says: “We found some significant negative side effects of performance funding. A number of schools said, ‘If you pressure us hard on graduation rates, you’re going to start getting grade inflation. And we’d also have to be more selective in terms of who we’d admit’—which, of course, runs counter to the whole ethos of open enrollment that defines these institutions.”
To avoid that danger, Dougherty has recommended (to, among others, the National Conference of State Legislatures) rewarding community colleges for enrollment and graduation of less-advantaged students, students of color, immigrants and adult students.
Then, too, there’s a fine line between applying productive pressure and simply creating an unstable operating environment. For example, South Carolina, an early implementer of performance funding, initially made 100 percent of funding to its public colleges performance-based.
“That caused total chaos,” Dougherty says. “So they had to back off.”
Ultimately the key to making performance funding work is to keep testing and refining it—and that requires an ongoing dialogue between state officials and community college leaders. “Potentially, it’s a valuable tool,” Dougherty says. “It’s very much in keeping with the current emphasis on using market incentives and emphasizing student success as much as student access. But as we’ve learned from other market-based policies, this has to be done carefully because these policies can have very powerful unintended side effects.”
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