04/23/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

Why Hawai'i's Community Colleges Aren't Broken at All

Community colleges are taking a lot of flack as legislators and news media take aim at perceived abuses of student loans by for-profit colleges and universities. A recent headline proclaimed Hawai'i's community colleges a "trap" in an article that completely ignores the purpose of the UHCC system and the needs and conditions of students at those schools. Really, the system serves the state superbly, and here's why.

Hawai'i's community colleges were established by the legislature in 1964 with a mandate to serve all the people of Hawai'i in an open-enrollment system. To go to other schools such as Manoa or HPU, you must apply and be accepted. Students who are accepted by application have demonstrated that they are ready for college and that they intend to finish. The latter may not happen, but the skills and intent are present when students, mostly of regular college age, walk in the door.

The CC system is a different world, with an average age of 28.2 at UH Maui College, as opposed to 22 at Manoa. Some are starting college straight out of high school, but most did not go to college at the "traditional" age. This is the brilliance of open enrollment at Hawai'i's community colleges: Anyone can play. This is also where the plot thickens.

President Obama has made a well-intentioned proposal for metrics-based Federal funding for colleges, calculated by graduation rates and length of time to degree, along with student-debt load and employability after graduation. The idea is to ensure students are not wasting money and time with high-cost, low-value degrees from for-profit schools. Federal funding follows ratings. Conceptually, it makes sense, but it will devastate open enrollment schools nationwide, including Hawai'i's community colleges. Well-funded, high profile schools select students likely to succeed and they will get the bulk of funding. CC students just do not matriculate on schedule for a number of predictable reasons, both practical and financial.

Our students have children they are raising, and some have grandchildren for whom they are primary caregivers. They work three jobs to keep a roof over their family's heads. I have students giving birth, enduring chemotherapy, or caring for parents and grandparents in hospice. Some are drop-outs who one day decide to get a GED and start improving their lives. They are the first in their immigrant family to even dream of college. They are recovering alcoholics or addicts with brilliant minds beginning to blossom. Some are simply taking an affordable path to applying to a Bachelor's program, and will do so successfully, but they will never complete the AA in which they enrolled.

Somehow, they persevere toward whatever goal prompted their return to school, and these are exactly the people open enrollment is designed to serve. Hawai'i colleges fall under accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) or the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which monitor how well schools meet standards and outcome goals. Among the standards, a credit hour is calculated as most of an hour in class plus about three hours of homework each week, or about 12 hours per three-credit course. For students maintaining children and household while working 60 hours a week, they are lucky to pass two classes a semester. To do 20 classes for an AA, that can take five years.

Under MRC Greenwood, the former UH system president infamous for the Stevie Wonder debacle, Manoa began a "15 to finish" initiative. That's 15 credits per semester to reach a BA in four years. It freaked our students out. They have no possibility of the time or funding to meet that goal. It would satisfy the ratings metrics, but would disenfranchise at least a third the 58,000 students in the UH system.

The Hawai'i community college system is nowhere near broken. Actually it is thriving, and fulfilling a plethora of diverse needs. You will find faculty encouraging and counseling students in a myriad of ways to get them through, despite the impossible situations, and we celebrate with them when they do finally finish after sometimes eight or nine years. They finish late not because of system problems, but because they are already going as fast as they can, short of neglecting the kids and giving up on having a home. They finish slowly, against overwhelming odds, but they do finish. Every system can use improvement, to be fair, and faculty and staff work constantly toward that goal. To that end, we need a system that nurtures all of our students on to degrees, on their own terms and in their own time, not one that will exclude the students lifting the heaviest loads on their roads to better lives.