Monday, August 16, 2010

Open admissions

Interesting article at Education Week (August 13) titled Community Colleges Rethink 'Open Door' Admissions as Remedial Costs Rise

Chicago mayor Richard Daley Chicago Mayor Richard Daley this week called for an end to the "open door" admissions policy at Chicago City Colleges, citing concerns about the cost of remedial courses and a desire to build a quality program.

This is a HUGE problem around the country.  Community colleges (CCs), such as the one I work at, have open door admissions.  Show up, pay the tuition in some way (typically via financial aid), and take classes.

Well, almost.  At our institution, and all other CCs I'm sure, students are first given math and English placement exams.  A significant proportion (majority) of incoming students will require either remedial English (i.e. they can't write a coherent paragraph) or math (i.e they can't solve simple algebraic equations).  A portion of our operating budget therefore goes toward offering large numbers of sections of remedial English and math classes.  Did I mention that many of the students placing in remedial English and math this fall semester graduated from a local high school with a diploma last June?  Don't even get me started on that!

Compounding this is the fact that during hard economic times, enrollment at CCs rise.  We're cheaper than four-year schools (students can live at home too) and people who've lost jobs will often think about returning to school to retrain for another field.  Unfortunately, support from the amazingly inept State of New York has gone down as enrollment goes up (1/3 of our budget)!  Support from the local county has remained flat (another 1/3 of our budget).  Tuition went up slightly (the final 1/3).  We're trying to educate more students but with less money (quite the business model - when enrollment increases, our financial situation gets worse!).

So, with enrollments up, we have to offer more remedial education classes.  Here's another problem.  A student's financial aid will only pay for so many semesters (typically 3 years to get a 2 year CC degree).  One scenario that often occurs is that a student places into a remedial writing class and a remedial math class.  Guess what, students who can't write also typically never read books either (that's why they can't even recognize that their writing sucks).  That's 6.0 credit hours and they need two other courses to get up to 12.0 credit hours.  Not remedial courses, but college-level courses because that's what financial aid rules require.  THIS STUDENT CAN'T READ, WRITE, OR DO MATH, WHAT THE HELL COLLEGE-LEVEL COURSES DO THEY WANT US TO PUT HIM INTO!!!  Did I mention some students need two or more semesters of remedial courses to get up to college level (often more than two semester's worth in math)?

Then to top it off, the administration then holds meetings to come up with strategies to increase retention because all these remedial students can't handle college-level work and end up flunking out or, more commonly, simply disappearing.  What a fucking surprise!  We then set up these systems such that we have to send alerts when students aren't coming to class so that someone can call the student at home and ask why he's not dragging his ass to class anymore.  Faculty, especially the increasing number of adjunct faculty we have, then start getting worried that they'll be accused of harming retention if they fail too many students.  Academic standards inevitably go down.

In the article, George Boggs, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges, says:

I'm a little concerned about this," Boggs says. "Community college has always been an open door for college. We have taken everybody." Students are assessed upon entry and take remedial programs if they aren't prepared. Boggs doesn't want to see colleges weed out students who are least able and don't have many other options.

It's like a hospital that only sees healthy patients, Boggs says. "I hate to see that philosophy—to improve quality by denying access to the most at-risk students," he says. "Where are these students going to turn? We need to find some way to take care of these students. We can't just leave them out there. It hampers their ability to be contributing members of society."

It's a noble sentiment but assumes that everyone can do college-level work.  I am a firm believer in giving everyone a chance to come to college and succeed but if you can't handle the material, find something else to do.  College is not for everyone.  Perhaps that makes me an elitist but there it is.  The end result of the above noble but naive philosophy is that a college degree will soon be worthless - much like a high school diploma is today.  Colleges should not be forced, especially without any financial support, to re-teach students material they should have learned in high school.  This is a public school problem, it shouldn't be a CC problem.

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