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Community College Leaders Prepare to Lobby on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, day three of the Community College National Legislative Summit, Diane Auer Jones, the U.S. Department of Education’s principal deputy under secretary, highlighted the government’s upcoming priorities for community colleges.

The conference, hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), brought together over 1,000 community college leaders to examine current legislative higher education regulations.

In her speech, Jones discussed upcoming policy changes that would impact postsecondary institutions and students.

Diane Auer JonesDiane Auer Jones

She said that with new accreditation regulations, it is now possible to have multiple governance models. Accreditors can have alternative standards to evaluate an institution’s progress.

“We understand that for many of your programs, it’s not the terminal degree that matters but the experience the person brings,” said Jones. “So we said to accreditors that it is okay to have different standards to evaluate an institution’s efforts and accomplishments in meeting its goals.”

Regulations also eliminated the “artificial distinction” between regional and national accreditors. National accreditors will be placed in one of three categories: institutional, programmatic and specialized accreditor.

“The idea is to not pick winners and losers,” said Jones. “The idea is to say that we hold all accreditors to the same standards, we don’t have different requirements for regional and national accreditors.”

Still, Jones said that when looking at outcome measures, the only measure that counted for community colleges is graduation rates.

“That’s just not fair,” she added.

Now, in the College Scorecard, new data has been added to include both graduated students and those who transferred. Additionally, the federally run online tool now includes a list of program-level outcomes for students to analyze.

“We don’t think that students should pick their professions because of earnings,” said Jones. “But we do think if earnings were to matter to students, they should be able to get the information they need to make an informed decision. And they may even find that there is a lower-cost option available to them.”

On Tuesday afternoon, community college leaders, trustees and students visited the House and Senate to lobby for the top priority issues highlighted in Monday’s sessions, including the need to expand Pell grants and for increased funding for both under-resourced institutions and programs that support student success.

“I think these are appropriate priorities,” said Dr. Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College. “And also … it would be great for us to get together to talk a little bit more about these trends and how to prepare for them.”

Dr. Mark MitsuiDr. Mark Mitsui

Coming into the conference, Mitsui was focused on how institutions can support students impacted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) cancellation. Mitsui, along with others, will advocate for this issue on Capitol Hill this week. He remains “hopeful” about the congressional conversations.

“We want to proactively gather as many resources and information and connections for our students as possible,” he said.

Although not a major point of discussion at the conference, Mitsui said that two of the biggest issues impacting community college students are food insecurity and homelessness.

According to research from Temple University, which used data from 14 of 17 Oregon community colleges, 20% of the respondents experienced homelessness six months prior to the survey, 42% experienced food insecurity and over 50% experienced housing insecurity.

“It’s a major barrier to college access and completion,” said Mitsui. “If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, how can you go to school? And the same for food insecurity.”

Portland Community College implemented Pathways to Opportunity as one solution to the problem. The program expands federal, state and local resources to be available to low-income students. For example, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help students with the cost of food while they complete their education.

Another ongoing challenge facing community colleges is the continuous change of the workforce, said Mitsui, who added that community colleges are tasked with “preparing our students for the future, a future that will be a lot more diverse, that will have the accelerated effects of global warming, that will have a new work state and a higher risk of traditional jobs to automation and then preparing the institutions to prepare students for these realities.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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