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Improved Efficiency Critical to Student Success in the Free Tuition Environment

The EvoLLLution | Improved Efficiency Critical to Student Success in the Free Tuition Environment
The access created by America’s College Promise needs to be matched by improved efficiency at colleges and universities to facilitate student success and transfer.

America’s College Promise aims to create unprecedented access to two-year higher education, a monumental step towards improving the national completion rate and supplying the knowledge economy with its highly skilled labor market. But, as many two-year college leaders know, access is only half the battle. Leaders need to think through how they will retain students in the free tuition environment and how they will support the transfer of their students to four-year universities, as desired. In this interview, Bruce Leslie shares his thoughts on some of the roadblocks that would stand in the way of student success in the event of a national rollout of America’s College Promise.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What impact do you think a national roll out of America’s College Promise will have on higher education in the United States?

Bruce Leslie (BL): Over the last two decades, the cost of higher education has been shifting from the public to the individual. States have cut back public higher education funding fairly drastically across the country and some of it may have been tied directly to the 2008 economic downturn but frankly this started well before that.

America’s College Promise is really a dramatic change in that philosophy.

But there are a few issues with the free tuition movement that need to be addressed. One that really hasn’t been spoken about is how America’s College Promise would fund the institutions. Our budgets are built around multiple sources of funding, typically local taxes, state taxes and tuition. The state taxes have diminished dramatically and in some cases, like in Arizona, they’re gone. Tuition has continued to increase somewhat at community colleges. There’s been no conversation about what will happen with a tuition-free model—will there be enough money? Will funding increase? This becomes the responsibility of the state and potentially the federal government.

Evo: In our last interview, you explained that the lack of alignment and advising, the loss of credentials and negative financial impacts posed the greatest roadblocks to transfer from college to four-year institutions. How are these challenges exacerbated by scale?

BL: This idea of universal higher education availability might actually put more pressure on institutions to remove the barriers to transfer.

Higher education typically does not change unless there is an external imperative. That’s been part of our frustration as we’re trying to work with our peer institutions and colleagues. The school districts are very easy to work with; we have the same agenda about moving students through high school to a community college, but the culture in the university is very different. It’s built around perception of quality and about funding coming from alumni or other kinds of grants. How courses are offered, scheduled and sized are important variables in reducing the cost of education and therefore reducing the demand on the student or the taxpayers to continue to pay. There’s a great deal of inefficiency in those areas and really often it’s disadvantageous to students because it’s confusing.

The pathways model is going to be able to do much more in a tuition-free environment. Further, with the current economic challenges that we have combined with the diminishing state resources, it’s been everyone’s desire at the community college level to not raise state tuition.

The barrier comes at the university level where there isn’t a lot of flexibility in trying to bring change. That’s what slows it all down. Imperative from policymakers may be what’s necessary for this to happen, and the benefit to the student will be tremendous.

Evo: How will the system of transfer between two-year colleges and four-year universities need to evolve to ensure the greater number of students being served under a free tuition model have the capacity to successfully transfer, if they wish?

BL: Right now, we already have some challenges with facilitating transfers. For example, students who are receiving Pell Grants or other financial aid at the community colleges may not have enough funding remaining by the time they get to the university, which may prevent them from finishing their baccalaureate. Students often take too many courses at community colleges, use up their Pell Grant or veterans’ benefits and this creates a barrier.

One could argue that Pell funding should start at the university level, allowing the student to have more money available to pursue their baccalaureate credentials, and that may be a big part of the solution. It’s not just the cost of tuition that’s problematic. It’s often cost of materials, the living cost, and a host of other expenses for adult learners.

Evo: Looking at the colleges and universities themselves, what kinds of changes do institutions need to make to improve operational efficiency and student outcomes?

BL: There’s a fiscal imperative that we become more efficient. We’ve always got the political issues internally surrounding how we develop systems that regularly and continuously evaluate and either revise or eliminate programs. This allows us to have more money to invest in something new or something that is increasingly demanded by the community.

The second issue is you’ve got a whole system of admissions and registration and financial aid—all those on-ramp programs—that are done very traditionally. We do it semester after semester, we repeat it, we put students through it, and I keep saying to my own team, “Why do we do this to our students and ourselves? Why do we re-register students every few months year after year?”

There’s got to be a way out of this but finding that and implementing it in a culture that has just accepted this system is very difficult. We’ve got to figure out ways for us to organizationally be able to pursue these changes. They make sense because they’ll be better for students.

When students are easily able to be admitted and enrolled and have a clear pathway to where they’re going, they’re going to be much more successful and able to complete their degree or certificate and transfer on to university or go directly into the labor market. That’s what many of us are trying to do, but it’s very tough work because there’s so much internal tradition around how the system functions.

We’ve got to be much more effective on having a collective impact approach so that everybody’s working together to create operational, organizational systems that are much more efficient and a lot less costly to operate and maintain year after year.

Evo: You made the good point that some of the biggest challenges to change are internal efforts to maintain the status quo. What can senior leaders do to overcome some of those more significant barriers?

BL: It’s hard to make dramatic changes to the status quo. To do so, you need a well-designed, thoughtful, multi-year strategy based on information about what is happening and students’ needs, so that everybody understands why the established system isn’t working well for students.

Refining a broken system isn’t going to get us to where we need to be. You do have to have the larger vision of what we are trying to achieve, what the potential savings to the institution will be, and what the potential improvements to student access will be.

Today’s students are used to using sites like, where you push a button and your package is delivered two days later. However, it still takes weeks for a student coming through college today to get through the system. Then, they’re often thrown back out of the system because a class got closed or there was a hold on a transcript. The big immediate need is for us to understand tools, utilize tools, and create a collective vision about why these changes need to be done.

I don’t think that America’s College Promise is going to flood us with money to allow us to keep doing what we’re doing.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact that America’s College Promise could have on the way that colleges operate and the transfer system between two-year colleges and four-year universities?

BL: I am in favor of America’s College Promise but there’s got to be more understanding of how it would work and what the expectations would be. We in higher education need to take a proactive position and show policy makers how this can work and how we can play our part. This is about efficiency and cost reduction but also about alignment between universities, community colleges and school districts. This is about clearing the path for students and helping students to graduate much quicker with a high-quality education that is validated by employers so that they’re satisfied with the outcome of what is coming out.

We’re all going to have to do that much more effectively than we have in the past. Traditionally we all work in our separate spaces and from time to time we talk to each other, but that’s it. We cannot adequately support our students with the models that are currently in play.

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