Success That Doesn't Count

Government officials -- without talking to faculty members on the front lines -- are evaluating community colleges with measures that exclude many students, write Susan Bernadzikowski and Jennifer Levi.

December 1, 2011

Jayne was a bright high school student with high aspirations and limited resources. Unwilling to take on debt to go to college, she chipped away at her bachelor's degree one course at a time while working full time at a local grocery store and raising her family. Jayne, who has given us permission to tell her story, traveled to whichever branch of the state university offered the course she needed at a time she could schedule. After 13 years, she earned her bachelor’s degree, as did her husband, who had adopted a similar slow but steady strategy. They both went on to earn master’s degrees and become educators in rural Ohio. For the subsequent 20 years, they have been guiding students -- often in their own difficult circumstances -- down their own educational paths. Isn't Jayne’s disciplined pursuit, fiscal responsibility, and devotion to community a success story -- not only for her, but for a system of higher education that supported her values and respected her ability to map her own journey?

Apparently not. By the parameters of "success" being discussed in many states in response to the national completion agenda, Jayne’s successes would not "count," largely because of the length of time that she took to get her degree.

The proposed markers of success require more students to complete more degrees in the shortest amount of time feasible. In many ways, these goals are laudable. However, these markers do not measure the financial stability, maturity, and perspective Jayne gained along the way — although surely her 5th-grade students benefit from them daily. Instead, colleges could lose funding for allowing the Jaynes of the world to take their time and mark their own paths. Depending on how states and institutions  attempt to meet completion percentages, even if students in difficult circumstances had Jayne’s drive and ability (and that's a big if), they may not be able to receive grant money or get access to classes needed to graduate because those on faster career paths could receive priority.

We fully embrace reforming higher education to increase student access, to distribute resources equitably, and to maximize student success.  We don’t deny that many students are wandering around college campuses lacking motivation and wasting resources. As educators in a two-year college, we teach 15 credits per semester, meet with all students individually, grade these students' work, serve on multiple committees, and engage in constant assessment.  Thus, we are intensely aware that our time, and that of our colleagues across the disciplines, is one of the most important resources being exhausted.

However, we also have the daily, profound experience of knowing not just one but many Jaynes. We personally have classrooms full of individuals whose life circumstances, like Jayne's, don’t afford them the luxury of attending college in the "ideal" way, as full-time students expending the majority of their emotional and intellectual energy on school work. When standing at the front of the class room, we don't have to look beyond the first row of students to encounter the combat veteran who juggles two jobs just to pay for housing in the projects; a so-called traditional-age college student who at 17 is struggling to raise a child of his own; a bright, multilingual immigrant who is in the U.S. for political asylum; a young woman who, since her youth, has been the sole caregiver of a parent disabled by an accident.

Thankfully, for their long-term health, the majority of our students' lives aren’t quite so severe. Commonly, though, financial needs necessarily trump educational ones as they struggle to fill their tanks with gas to get to campus. They skip class to attend job interviews, they pick up extra shifts at the expense of homework, and they disappear mid-semester to take a temp job because they have to.

This student profile certainly isn't limited to our student body, or even to two-year colleges. As the gap between the upper and middle classes widens, fewer and fewer students can follow the "ideal" path. Many students who go to four-year residential campuses are also working at least part time.  Like their two-year counterparts, they may be one life event -- a divorce, a parent's job loss, or a personal illness -- away from dropping out, or withdrawing temporarily until their circumstances improve. Yet amazingly enough, some of them make it through anyway, on their own terms. As one colleague in the Midwest put it, she could instantly think of numerous students who defied traditional definitions of success, but whose success should be honored and even encouraged.

So we don’t believe that the nation should rush to definitions of "success" and make the corresponding changes to mission and policy at the expense of Jayne and, as importantly, without consultation with Jayne. And Jayne is on the chopping block because she doesn't stand out in statistical analyses of efficiency; she presses on completing a bachelor’s degree in 13 years instead of 6.  She may also be on the chopping block because the competing demands in her life prevent her from joining the decision-making discussion — or from even being aware of it.

Jayne does stand out to the faculty and possibly advisers who get to know her as an individual, marvel at the work she produces, and witness firsthand her passion and dedication. The faculty know she will achieve great things if the system just stays out of her way.

But in many instances across the nation, the faculty who know Jayne aren't being included in the conversation either. As we informally surveyed faculty from two- and four-year institutions across the nation to put our own experiences in context, several important common themes emerged.

First, there are many faculty members across the nation who are not even aware that the completion agenda exists. Granted there are likely myriad reasons for this, including the uninterest of some faculty in the politics of education, but at the top of the list is that information isn’t consistently being shared from the top down. Those of us fortunate enough to be in the loop are being included in the “how do we achieve this” part of the conversation, not the “what” or the “why” of goals creation, which is often happening in the upper tiers of the national and state governing bodies.

Second, among those who do know of the completion agenda, there is a pervasive feeling of fear. What if the rush to accelerate completion waters down curricula and generates a population of people with credentials, but no real education? What if faculty jobs, government funding, student aid, and so forth are tied to the number of students we get through, rather than the number we educate? And as Jonathan Lightman of the California Community College system asked in Inside Higher Ed, what if acceleration comes at the expense of bright students who need "time with exploration ... before they know what their talents are."

Further, in an economic climate that allows for the prioritizing of fiscal over human capital, faculty are constantly reminded that they are, in many ways, expendable. As in any other profession, there are hundreds of people waiting for their jobs. The "no grumbling" policy added to the new faculty discipline policy in one community college system justifies the fear that should faculty voice their opinions too assertively, no matter what their motivation or expertise, they risk being not just censured, but unemployed.

Third, the higher ed representatives in completion agenda conversations are most commonly administrators who, however perceptive and well-intentioned, may not have recent firsthand experience with the populations they are representing, particularly at larger institutions where their paths don’t often cross in hallways.  Consider, for example, who was actually invited to attend Obama’s Summit on Community College education.

The U.S. needs a well-educated, socially aware workforce — not just a credentialed one. In order to make national reform meaningful and lasting, we need to open the discussion of what higher education success means to all of those invested, not just those who make the big decisions. We know that the people we hope will participate in the discussion have the least amount of time to do so, so we are trying to make it as easy as possible for them to tell their stories.

We are inviting students, college graduates, faculty, advisors — or anyone on the front lines — to share short stories of student successes and struggles that should inform the completion agenda discussion. We intend to collect these stories in a book entitled Why My Story Matters. Because it does matter to us, and it should matter to anyone committed to making our system of higher education work for individual students and for the nation.


Professors of English at Cecil College, Susan Bernadzikowski and Jennifer Levi co-chaired their department for five years.

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