Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.
We hear it again and again: The jobs of the future are going to take hustle. Job-seekers will have to be creative, generate buzz, be extraordinary. Make their own luck.
So why, in my Dorothea Lange vision of present conditions, do I visualize a young person with a cardboard sign that reads, “Too Tired to Hustle”?
As a community college professor, I’m proud that our institutions are open-admission. With very rare exceptions, there’s no qualifying exam. We don’t, for reasons of experience or ability, turn people away. But what are we turning them toward? What jobs lie ahead for my students? That question is increasingly troubling.
At my first community college gig 15 years ago, my students -- for better or for worse -- often met the then-stereotype of community college: the place you end up only because it is your first chance, or your last. Some of my students had parole officers, some had just become citizens, some had meandered through high school, and few had parents who had themselves gone to college.
My students today -- at a much nicer campus in a less disadvantaged part of the country -- meet those negative stereotypes less and less. That recent community college students are increasingly of traditional college age and qualifications is evident to me in my classroom and in their written work. More often than not, now, mine are “university” students simply priced out of the market for four-year education, or prudently looking for the first two years at a bargain.
But for all their improved preparation, they are anxious -- terribly anxious -- and I am anxious for them.
I am anxious not only for the same reasons they are -- the onset of a debilitating student loan burden, the desperate competition for unpaid internships, the concern that there might simply be not enough jobs to go around.
I am anxious, also, for a reason that many of them have not caught onto yet: the mismatch between the supposedly “good” jobs that popular wisdom seems to suggest will definitely continue to exist -- entrepreneurial, experimental, start-up jobs, jobs of risk, hustle, and verve -- and the jobs my students claim to want. Flipping through a semester’s worth of self-introductions is like an obituary pamphlet for Old Economy employment. Again and again, they express a desire for mostly public or public-ish, long-term, safe and stable, even unionized, positions: firefighting, criminal justice, firefighting, nursing, nursing, teaching, teaching, teaching, radiology, firefighting, criminal justice.
Although a few students write, vaguely, business, and a few more, computer science, few are writing, “I want to start my own company,” “I want to freelance myself as a consultant,” “I’m going to sell myself, I have a vision, and I’m going to hustle until I get there, on my own.” There’s little excitement, to tell you the truth. There’s just the longing for a job where you do one thing, easily described, for a long term, and get predictably and sufficiently paid for what you do.
My students don’t want to be astronauts. They want jobs with reasonable, set hours, job security and pensions.
And I don’t know how to break it to them. I don’t know how to sell the alternative -- the more realistic future of work, that sort of chance, the chanciest chance I’ve ever sold.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the competitive capacity of my students; if anything, they seem more experienced in cutthroat competition than ever before. What is exhausted -- just worn and jaded, from constant use, and such challenging odds of reward -- is their inner reserves. Their belief that hustle can actually, well, work. And their trust that a hustle-world -- a world of contingent, not permanent, labor; of setting your own path, not following the path of a established bureaucracy; and of preparing, always preparing, not for the present, but for the as-yet-unimagined-job-that’s-next -- will be a good one, an equitable one, a world they’ll want to join. Or that will include a place for them, even if they do.
The problem with making your own luck is that it requires so much previous luck. To be nimble, to be ready, to have the excess emotional capacity to take future self-driven employment by the balls -- you need to not already be tired, scared, in shelter-mode. To risk more, you have to have not lost too much already. Or at least: not having lost too much already really, really helps.
Many of my students are not the unluckiest, but neither have they been that lucky. They are willing to work, but too tired to hustle. And that used to be enough.
Nicole Matos is associate professor of English at the College of DuPage, in Illinois. Her writing credits include Salon, The Rumpus, berfrois and numerous other literary and academic journals.