Thursday, October 27, 2011

Community-College Dropouts Cost Taxpayers $$$

The Chronicle of Higher Education had this article on October 20 - "Community-College Dropouts Cost Taxpayers Nearly $1-Billion a Year, Report Says."  The article references the report The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges from the American Institutes for Research.

The basic message of this report is summarized by the following:

Nearly $4 billion was spent by federal, state, and local governments over five years on full-time community college students who dropped out after their first year without completing their certificate or degree programs... About a fifth of full-time students who enroll at a community college do not return for a second year.

Sounds terrible, doesn't it?  We're wasting all this money on students who drop out of community colleges.  What can we do about it?  None of the recommendations made in this report are anything new.  It's all stuff we're trying to do at my institution.

It's no secret that I teach at a 2-year community college in the mid-Hudson Valley Region of New York.  We are a part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system and, as our catalog states, we're "a full opportunity, open-door institution."  What this means is that we accept virtually anyone who is able to pay the tuition (most of our students, as you might guess, receive State and Federal financial aid).  All applicants for full-time study are given placement exams in English (reading and writing) and mathematics.  If students have deficiencies in these areas, such that they would not be able to succeed in College English 1 or college level math course, we have a number of developmental (remedial) courses available and we're always looking at ways to assess these courses and make them more effective.

What about our close neighbor - a typical four-year state school (also part of the SUNY system)?  They describe themselves (on their website) as a "Very selective 4-year co-ed residential regional university college" and examine the following as criteria for admission:

  • The quality and strength of your high school academic program for 9th, 10th , and 11th grades.
  • The results of either the SAT (Critical Reading and Mathematics sections) or ACT (Composite score).

  • The quality of the personal essay you submit.
  • One academic teacher or guidance counselor letter of recommendation.

Nothing wrong with that but think about how that affects our student bodies.  We accept everyone. The four-year state schools are selective (and let's not even talk about the private colleges in the Hudson Valley).  See a difference?  We often get those rejected from everywhere else!   It makes no sense to compare our retention to four-year college retention.  We have different missions and a different student population.  In many ways our mission is more difficult because we have students that range from barely literate to top notch and we have to meet all of their needs.
So why don't so many students continue from the first year to the next at community colleges?  If anyone ever figures it out, let us know because we rip our hair out over this issue.  Our college certainly does not want students to leave prior to graduation - we expend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to improve retention.

Here's what I've learned simply by teaching here for the past 12 years or so...

     A.  Some students simply flunk out with a low GPA.  Quite frankly, they don't have the academic ability to succeed in college and  100-level courses are too difficult for them to handle.  Some of my colleagues disagree, and believe anyone and everyone has the ability to succeed in college, but I think they're living in a fantasy land.

     B.  Some students leave because they've had something bad happen to them and can't continue attending school.  A loss of income, a health issue, or a family issue. Some of these students have a good GPA and some don't.  The college is limited in how much we can help students who tell us "My car died and I can't afford another one so I can't get to school" or "I've just been diagnosed with cancer."  Some eventually return, others are never seen again.

     C.  Some students are insufficiently motivated to succeed.  They are not in college because they want to be here (usually because parents want them to be there).  They invest more effort into a job or just going out and having fun.  Some tell us point blank "I don't want to be here but my parents told me I have to go to school or they'll kick me out."  Usually, these students have a poor GPA and end up flunking out.  Sometimes, however, they simply have an epiphany and leave.

     D.  Some students transfer to a different institution that they feel better meets their needs.  Many of my advisees tell me that don't plan on getting a degree here, they just want to get their GPA up so they can transfer somewhere "better".  It's very common for students to flunk out of a four-year school, come to our community college for a year, and then transfer back to the four-year school.
Many times we simply don't know why they leave and never return.

Some of these are success stories even though they're reported in our statistics as retention failures.  The student who transfers to a four-year school before completing a degree at our institution isn't failing - they're succeeding!  As far as I'm concerned, it may also be a good thing if a student realizes that they'd be better off going out into the workforce (especially if they have a useful skill) instead of getting a generic two-year degree.  I know many people who have no college degree and who make far more money than PhDs teaching at your local community college!

What about a barely literate student who comes for a year, doesn't do well, and drops out?  Well, we tried.  Even if the student couldn't handle college-level work, I think the student probably benefited from the remedial reading and writing classes they would have had to take and that can only help them when they're out in the job market.  Just counting it as a retention failure is short-sighted.

We can't guarantee that everyone who comes to our institution will succeed and leave with a degree.  Any policy maker who believes that is possible is a moron (tell them I said so).  What we provide, with our open-door policy, is for everyone to have a CHANCE to succeed.  We do all we can here to facilitate that but the student also has to contribute.  You can't just buy your degree, just as you can't pay to join a health club and automatically expect to lose weight and grow muscles.  The student has to work to succeed.  If that part of the equation is missing, no amount of money or policies is going to fix it.

There are many places around the world where most people don't have even a chance of higher education - especially if they were born to poor parents.  What we provide, for virtually everyone, is that chance.  If I had been born in many other places around the world, I would have NEVER received a college education (I almost didn't here!).  But I went to a community college and succeeded.  State and federal financial aid (as well as student loans) assisted in that.  Was it worth it to society to provide me that opportunity even though I could have also blown it and flunked out?  I'll leave that for others to answer.


  1. I always come back to the old maxim ...
    If you think education is expensive ... try ignorance ...

  2. College should be free like in other countries. Especially now with the internet.