• 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.



Paths to completion.


June 8, 2015

I didn’t expect to read about a three year degree at Wesleyan. When higher ed types talk about accelerating the process of degree completion, they’re usually referring to less selective -- and often less expensive -- places. Elites are typically assumed to be perfect just the way they are.

Which suggests, among other things, that the economic argument for acceleration isn’t entirely what it seems to be. A single year at Wesleyan costs far more than an entire degree at a community college. If it were truly all about cost, you’d think the trend would have started at the top of the food chain, where college costs the most. It didn’t.

Acceleration is a plausible answer to a host of questions.  It can keep students from getting lost on the way to completion. It can reduce cost. It can force a kind of focus, which has obvious academic benefits. Done right -- which is to say, when it’s routinized -- it can make juggling outside life variables easier. At a really basic level, very few outside jobs function on the academic seasonal calendar; moving to a twelve-month calendar can make it easier for some working adults to make it through. Continuity can be a virtue.

That said, something about “rush the proles through while the elites take their sweet time” doesn’t sit right.

Part of the rush to get students through, I think, is driven by the mismatch between student loan debt and entry-level pay. But the really eye-popping student debt loads don’t typically occur at community or state colleges. The median debt load of an HCC graduate last year was zero. The wage problem is a wage problem, not a tuition problem. To the extent that public colleges have increased tuition over the last several years, the root cause is simple enough.

Acceleration can help with student success. Some of it is based on outrunning life. The longer that students take, the more opportunities arise for life to get in the way. That’s probably why our course completion rate in the January Intersession period are always well into the nineties, which is off the charts for community colleges generally.  When courses are so short, life doesn’t have time to intervene. Students don’t have time to fall behind.

Some of the push to accelerate is clearly to the good. To the extent that colleges spell out, say, that defining “full time” as 12 credits means not graduating on time, I see all upside. Constructing course sequences in clear enough ways that real students could really take them, similarly, is an unalloyed good.

I’m less sold, though, on the version of acceleration that asks high school students to identify a career goal. Yesterday’s IHE piece on transfer made mention of “endorsements” that high school students in Texas are supposed to make in the ninth grade, picking a general field of study. That seems awfully early to me, and it seems to take for granted a level of field awareness (and of self-awareness) that I’d be surprised to find prevalent in ninth graders. Yes, it’s more efficient when students know from day one exactly what they want to do. But I’d hate to sacrifice exploration entirely, locking students into pathways based on decisions made before they could drive.  

Instead, I’d love to see more instruction in high school that gives students exposure to lots of different real-world occupations before asking them to choose. Inform the choice first. Fill in the cultural capital that the better-off kids get at home as a matter of course.  Once they have a basic sense of their options, committing to one becomes less random.  

Acceleration done right is too good an idea to become a marker of lower-class status. I’m surprised to see Wesleyan try it, though not surprised that very few students took them up on it. They don’t have to. They have the luxury of time. I hope that doesn’t become the latest marker of status. We have enough of those already.


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