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A key test for L.A.'s community colleges

Two institutions are on probation for failing to conduct 'program review.' Though that sounds like a minor administrative matter, it helps schools answer a big question: Do our programs work?

July 21, 2009

Two Los Angeles community colleges had their accreditation placed on probation this month, not because their academic offerings aren't good but because they have little way of knowing whether the offerings are good or not.

Failure to conduct "program review" might sound like a minor administrative weakness at schools that try to meet a thousand needs with limited funds. But one of the most basic things a college can do is examine its programs to see whether they work. How many of the students who plan to transfer to a four-year college are able to do so within two or three years? Do the graduates of vocational-tech programs find jobs? Is counseling to prevent students from dropping out actually keeping them in school?

With L.A. City College and L.A. Trade-Technical College now on probation because they were not conducting such examinations -- and L.A. Southwest College recently removed from probationary status that was imposed last year over similar issues -- the Los Angeles Community College District should be reviewing all of its nine campuses to make sure they are bringing accountability to their daily practices.

Instead, district officials tend to downplay such complaints from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. "They really are sort of technical issues," Gary Colombo, the district's vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness, told The Times regarding the latest disciplinary measures. It's true that the accrediting agency wasn't alleging anything like an inferior education. But in ways, program review is even more basic. The colleges have no way of determining how good they are at educating students -- and the public has no way of judging how well they serve the "community" they are named for -- without regular assessment.

That will be even more important now that President Obama has pledged to spend $12 billion on community colleges. Most of that new money will be in innovation grants to colleges that can show they have effective, efficient programs for keeping students in school and preparing them for jobs. Colleges without internal accountability measures in place will be at a competitive disadvantage.

It's easy to see how college administrators might let program review slide. In a bad economy, they are inundated with laid-off workers seeking training for new jobs, new college students looking for a cheaper path to a four-year degree and adults looking for low-cost recreational classes -- all of which they're supposed to provide with a predicted budget cut of hundreds of millions of dollars. That's all the more reason to ensure that every dollar is spent well.

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