Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Are Community Colleges Failures?

On March 3, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “2-Year Colleges are Urged to Capitalize on their Time in the Spotlight” (sorry but the article is available only to subscribers). A few things in this article really annoyed me so I thought I'd comment.

The article is a report on the comments of Dr. Terry O'Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and chair of the graduate faculty at National American University (a for-profit college). Although the article doesn't explicitly state this, the comments were made at the League for Innovation Innovations 2014 conference from March 2-5 in Anaheim, California.

Terry O'Banion is a well-known in the educational reform community. His academic background is in Guidance and Counseling (M.S.) and Educational Administration (Ph.D.) - I'll be nice and refrain from saying what I think about Ph.D.s in educational administration. Despite this, Dr. O'Banion certainly has an impressive vita and has spent decades thinking about higher education. Some of the things he's quoted as saying, however, do rub me the wrong way. Keep in mind that I wasn't at the conference and am only going by what the author of this article in the Chronicle is quoting. Regarding community colleges:

 “… it’s time they stepped up their game by improving 'unforgiveable' program-completion numbers…”

While it is true that, on paper, program completion statistics for community colleges are low there are somewhat intractable reasons for this that we can't easily address. Here are two major problems with this statement (and I can only talk about my experiences at the community college where I teach):

First, these types of program-completion statistics typically have major flaws. We're required to report, for example, graduation rates as defined by IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). These are defined as:

“… the number of students entering the institution as full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students in a particular year (cohort), by race/ethnicity and gender; the number completing their program within 150 percent of normal time to completion…”

What does this mean? Basically, suppose we have 100 students entering in the fall semester and matriculating into a particular degree program. The graduation rate is the number of these students graduating from their declared programs within 3 years (2-year program, so 150% of normal time is 3 years). Sounds good, right? Think again.

We are an open-door institution. That means virtually anyone can be admitted. We routinely admit students who, after taking English and mathematics placement exams, are shown to be functionally innumerate and illiterate. We have a number of developmental reading (yes, reading), writing, and mathematics courses at the college. Such students are required to take these courses to get those skills up to college-level. This means that for a semester or two, the student is not making much progress toward their actual degree (but they are learning useful skills that will enable them to do so). Suppose it now takes them 3.5 years to complete. We should all be proud of those students for the incredible progress they made academically. They're a failure according to IPEDS.

Well, what if a student changes their major? That's actually very common since, not surprisingly, a lot of 18-year-olds don't really know what they want to do with the rest of their life. Changing a majors screws up the reporting (and also increases time to completion since they may have extra coursework to do). The student has now found their life's calling, they graduate, but they're a failure, according to IPEDS.

Suppose a student only attends for a year, but then successfully transfers to a four-year college or university before completing a degree at the community college. To everyone else, that student is successful. To IPEDS, they're a failure.

Suppose a student comes for a year, but then takes a year off to care for their sick mother. They come back the following year and eventually graduate. A failure according to IPEDS.

Suppose a student has trouble paying for college (very common at our institution). They go full time for a year, then drop down to part time and work full time. It takes them 4 years to get through college but they graduate.  Most of us would applaud their hard work. IPEDS considers them a failure.

All of these scenarios are very common at our institution. They all result in a lowering of our IPEDS graduation rate statistics. And, really, how dare they compare open door community college graduation rates with four-year college and university graduation rates where they have SELECTIVE admissions (they don't admit students unlikely to succeed - we do!).

How exactly do we “step up our game” to improve these statistics, Dr. O'Banion?

Second, as already mentioned, we're an open door institution. We have students who are barely literate and, not surprisingly, many of them don't succeed. It's not politically-correct to say this, but some people are not "college material" (where exactly did this faux ‘equality’ idea come from that we all have the same abilities in life?). They simply don't have the ability to earn even a two-year degree at a community college. How can you succeed in college when you can't read at even a high school level, can't write a coherent paragraph, and can't do simple middle-school level math? We have those students.

While we have a whole slew of remedial/developmental courses for such students to take, they don't always help. Some have learning disabilities. Some simply don't have the intellectual abilities necessary to succeed. Some don't have the interest or motivation to learn (I have students tell me that haven't read a book in years and nothing academic interests them).  If they don't succeed, how is that my fault as a faculty member or my college's fault?  We provided them with ample opportunity to succeed.

College is not a place you go to purchase a degree (despite what some students and parents expect). It requires (gasp) hard work and effort to earn a degree!  When college funding is tied to artificial (see above) graduation rates, then there will strong pressure to academically water down the curricula.  A college degree will then be as worthless as a public high school degree currently is (sorry, but we get ever increasing numbers of recent high school graduates who immediately place into remedial courses).

By being open door, we give EVERYONE the OPPORTUNITY to EARN a degree.  We do not GIVE everyone a degree.  There's a huge and very important difference here that national educational reformers and politicians never seem to address (or even understand, god help us).

No one's saying we can't improve.  I'm chair of a STEM department and we're constantly trying to improve our courses and programs, increase enrollments, improve retention rates, etc.  But we sure as bloody hell aren't going to do it by watering down the content and rigor of our courses to make it easier for marginal students to pass so we can inflate numbers.  Math and science courses are challenging.  They're supposed to be challenging.  We can make them easier to improve our statistics but guess what?  We'd be doing the students a disservice because they will then move into a more rigorous four-year program and flunk out since they'd be lacking the necessary foundations.  We can't pass the buck (that's what the high schools, damn those educrats in Albany, have done to us at the community college).

But what do I know, not being a well-known educational reformer...


  1. Well said! (and I'm a CC grad - and eventual transfer, with a CC professor wife and a CC student daughter in Geo).