• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Absence of Asterisks

Why some messages get through and others don’t.

December 7, 2021

I’ve mentioned before that The Girl has become the go-to person in her friend group for college search advice; I’m her source of intel.

The latest question that brought me up short came from a friend of hers who wants to attend Brookdale next year. He told TG that he failed the entrance test, so he was concerned that he wouldn’t get in. I clarified that there is no entrance test. There’s a placement test, but the worst that would happen is you might have to take an extra class to catch up; we have a 100 percent admission rate for folks with high school diplomas. She was surprised and promised to pass that along.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the NJ Stars program—I don’t remember the context—and TG asked me what that was. It’s a state program through which high school seniors who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class get free tuition at their local community college. TG would be eligible for that if she applied to Brookdale; she had never heard of it. I asked her to mention it to her friends.

Neither of those pieces of information should be secret. But for whatever reason, a group of 17-year-olds with college-educated parents didn’t know them. Several in the group plan to attend Brookdale next year, so it isn’t an issue of lack of interest or lack of relevance. Somehow, good information didn’t get through.

I was reminded of that in reading the Inside Higher Ed piece about how white and Asian students are advantaged in the admissions process to many colleges. The piece isn’t really about conscious bias among admissions professionals; it’s about the social networks through which kids in certain neighborhoods—like the kids in TG’s friend group—have access to information that kids in other neighborhoods don’t. That information can make a difference. Her friend who thought he had failed the entrance exam could well have decided that college wasn’t for him; I’d bet there are kids in other neighborhoods who do exactly that. But he had (accidental) access to information that could negate the negative message. Others don’t.

It’s hard to know how to get messages like that out in ways that prospective students will hear them. Email and snail mail are great, but based on the haul that TG gets, I can attest that a lot gets lost in the shuffle. There’s just too much. If a literal spam filter doesn’t catch it, the de facto spam filter of an exhausted reader will. If they don’t already know to look for it, it’ll probably wind up ignored.

To my mind, that’s probably part of what was behind the raging success of the free community college program at Spartanburg Community College. It publicized “free” very clearly, with a minimum of asterisks. The sheer simplicity of the message cut through the noise and led to a striking enrollment increase at a time when most community colleges are experiencing declines.

Simplicity is a hard sell in policy circles. There’s always the temptation to add asterisks and qualifiers to prevent anyone “undeserving” from getting a benefit. “Means testing” is sold as a fiscally prudent way to avoid waste. But it’s also a way of discouraging those who really should benefit, just by making everything so much more complicated. It also makes programs politically vulnerable, since they tend to exclude most voters.

Universalism works wonders. At TG’s high school this year, all breakfasts and lunches are free. It’s beautifully simple. Any student who wants breakfast or lunch can get it. (TG reports that the chicken sandwiches are particularly good.) There’s no paperwork to fill out, no tax information to verify and no stigma. The food is there for anyone who wants it. That message got through loud and clear. The absence of asterisks makes all the difference.

Open admission and free tuition are wonderful things. They shouldn’t be secrets. But asterisks and qualifiers, however well-intended, quickly move them from the “wow!” pile to the “later” pile, never to be noticed again. We need to drop the asterisks. There’s just too much at stake.


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