End community college waste 

California spends more than $100 million a year on community college students who drop out before their second academic year, according to a study released Thursday by the nonprofit American Institutes of Research. That wasteful spending surpasses any other state, even accounting for differences in population.

“We must pay far more attention to the high costs of low retention rates,” said Mark Schneider, who authored the study titled “The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges.” Given the increasing fiscal difficulties facing states like California, the report stated, “it is clear that ‘business as usual’ is far too expensive.”

Meanwhile, at a state Senate committee meeting in Sacramento, lawmakers heard from the head of a task force created last year to find ways to address student attrition and other issues plaguing the state’s community colleges.

“We all would like to see the numbers vastly improve,” said Peter MacDougall, chairman of California’s Student Success Task Force who also serves on the California Community College’s Board of Governors. “We can and have to do better.”

Toward that end, MacDougall’s task force released draft recommendations that will be considered by the Legislature in February.

The question is whether the implementation of the recommendations will reduce the 20 percent attrition rate for first-year community college students, sparing California taxpayers the $100 million a year squandered on dropouts.

The AIR study is not every encouraging. “If the history of other education reforms is a prologue to the future,” it says, the kind of recommendations put forward by the state Student Success Task Force “will likely prove to be ineffective.”

Almost every proposed reform I’ve ever read has recommended the same old, same old. So here’s a radical recommendation for the Legislature to consider that’s outside the box: Take the $100 million it is throwing away on community colleges and invest part of it in vocational education.

As it is now, California’s public education system operates under the seemingly egalitarian notion that every kid ought to not only earn a high school diploma, but also a post-secondary degree from a two-year or, better still, four-year college or university.

Because of that misguided notion, 100,000 or so youngsters drop out of California high schools each year. It’s why 70 percent of students who enroll in California’s 112 community colleges drop out without obtaining either a two-year degree or transferring to a four-year university.

California education officials need to accept the reality that a certain percentage of the state’s school-age population has no desire to chase a college diploma. They would much prefer to pursue a vocation.

The late Steve Jobs didn’t have a college diploma, but he co-founded Apple. Hilary Swank didn’t even graduate from high school, but she’s a two-time Oscar-winning actress. Wolfgang Puck eschewed higher education, yet the celebrity chef boasts more than a dozen restaurants around the country. Gisele Bundchen never set foot on a college campus, yet she is the highest-paid model in the world.

Or how about instruction in other fields and industries that do not necessarily require a college diploma, such as automotive services, computers and information technology, home building, hotel and restaurant management, sports and entertainment?

California can depart from business as usual and offer vocational education for school-age youngsters who have no desire to spend two or four years pursuing a degree. Or it can maintain the status quo, guaranteeing that the state continues to throw away more than $100 million a year on community college dropouts.

Joseph Perkins is the business editor of San Diego Magazine. He served on the White House staff of former Vice President Dan Quayle.

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