CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming took a big step this legislative session toward funding community colleges based on student outcomes rather than enrollment.
And as a similarly focused national nonprofit aimed at improving college graduation rates gains traction in Wyoming, the state is poised to increasingly reward colleges for performance instead of student population.
For the first time, $14.3 million in the upcoming year's budget bill came with instructions to be divided based on the number of courses students complete at each of Wyoming's seven community colleges, said Jim Rose, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.
Before then, the Legislature did not formally consider student performance when determining funding for Wyoming's community colleges, Rose said.
"With the governor's and the Legislature's blessing, and with guidance of policymakers, we are basically moving more and more into an aggressive performance-driven funding system," he said.
The move means colleges are increasingly rewarded for the number of students who pass a class instead of the number of students who enroll in it.
That idea is a leading priority for Complete College America, a privately funded coalition of 34 states and the District of Columbia committed to improving post-secondary graduation rates nationwide.
Wyoming joined the coalition in 2012, when Gov. Matt Mead accepted an invitation from the national group and assembled a team to represent Wyoming community colleges, the University of Wyoming and Mead's executive branch.
The group, known as Complete College Wyoming, is forming a plan to improve degree completion at community colleges by 5 percent each year until 2022. As part of the initiative, UW agreed to try to increase the number of baccalaureate degrees it awards by 2 percent annually until 2022, according to an organization newsletter.
Complete College Wyoming is a bipartisan group free of top-down requirements or punitive consequences for not meeting mandates, said Steve Thulin, a history professor at Northwest College in Powell.
That is one major difference between the nonprofit Complete College America and federal No Child Left Behind law, which prescribed proficiency targets for public schools that rise annually until this year, when all students in the U.S. are expected to be proficient in every subject.
Much of what the group recommends are things community colleges here are already doing, Thulin said.
For instance, Complete College America advocates tying funding to student performance, instead of enrollment. The group advocates increasing the number of credits a student must take each semester to qualify for full-time status and changing the way colleges structure remedial courses, which are classes designed to bring a struggling student to college-level proficiency in a subject.
"In Wyoming, there’s an ongoing debate about remedial education insofar as some people, some politicians, think we require too much of it," Thulin said.
Fewer than half of all Wyoming students who enter remedial courses at a community college finish their remedial coursework, according to data from Complete College Wyoming.
Complete College America would like more hybrid courses that blend remedial coursework for the first part of a course, then move to college-level work later in the semester, Thulin said. The Wyoming chapter is not prescribing ways community colleges should do this. Each college is experimenting with ways to improve completion rates on its own, he said.
Thulin said Northwest College was already in the process of improving its academic advising to better target several hundred general-studies students who lack specific majors when Complete College Wyoming started. Encouraging students to enroll in cohesive academic programs instead of random, individual courses is one of Complete College America's top five priorities.
The push for improvement among higher education institutions comes as more jobs require formal education beyond high school, and amid low completion rates for community college students.
One of every five students who entered a two-year college in Wyoming in 2004 completed a degree in two years, according to data from Complete College Wyoming. After four years, about a third of those students completed a two-year degree.
Kathy Vetter, president of the Wyoming Education Association, said her team is "keeping an eye" on the Complete College Wyoming group but does not formally support or oppose the initiative.
"It's kind of setting a bar that we don't know if it's going to be achievable," Vetter said of the group's goal to increase degree completion by 5 percent each year. "It may not be possible for all of them to do."
Especially in community colleges, where some students simply take a class or two to improve their skills for a job they already have, tracking the number of degree completions may be an inaccurate reflection of success, she said.