• 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.

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Dual Admissions

Why it’s great, and why it doesn’t catch on more.

June 30, 2022

The Hechinger Report has a good piece this week about dual admissions programs. It’s worth the read.

Dual admissions programs usually work by having the student apply simultaneously to a two-year college and a four-year college, on the assumption that they’ll start at the former and finish at the latter. In some cases, community colleges use them to attract students who intend to complete a four-year degree; in others, four-year schools offer them as a sort of minor league tryout for students who didn’t make the admissions cut the first time. Finish community college with a GPA of at least X, and you can return to where you wanted to be.

There’s plenty of win to go around. For the four-year partner, dual admissions agreements help fill seats in the upper-level classes that often run smaller due to cohort attrition. Even better, they fill those seats with students who have track records of success in college. For the community college, there’s the obvious benefit of enrollment, and a less obvious benefit of a clearer incentive for students to finish. If a student really wants to go to Flagship U, and the condition of going is finishing at the community college first, then they’ll do what they have to do to finish.

For the student, the benefits are several. The most obvious is security; the student knows what comes next, assuming all goes well. (That’s a major assumption, of course, but no agreement can entirely eliminate that.) Dual admissions agreements also usually involve the second school waiving the application fee, which is helpful.

But the biggest advantage, I suspect, is the assurance that every credit will transfer. In the world of vertical transfer, that’s not always a given. Some of that is a function of snobbery and/or self-interest on the part of receiving departments, but there’s also a more fundamental issue at work: four-year colleges in the same state often have different degree requirements.

That may seem benign enough, but it creates a real challenge for schools that prepare a lot of students for transfer. For community colleges in areas with a surfeit of four-year schools, such as much of the Northeast, it’s not unusual for a given graduating class to be split among dozens of different destinations. Even the lower end of our top 10 receiving schools get healthy numbers from us. For any given program, though, it’s often impossible to mimic perfectly the first two years of a major in Hypothetical Studies, since the four-year schools’ Hypothetical Studies programs differ from each other. Mimicking Compass Direction State is great if that’s where the student wants to go, but if they go instead to Flagship U, those same courses might not fit.

In the case of dual admissions, the student specifies the target school up front. Frequently, the target school provides academic advising to ensure that the student takes the “right” classes, even if they require some internal waivers at the community college. Ensuring the fit of one curriculum to another can minimize credit loss, which is all to the good.

Given the advantages, one might expect dual admissions programs to be more popular than they are. My sense of it is that they remain relatively marginal for a few reasons. The most basic one is that many entering community college students just don’t know yet where they want to go next, or in which program. By the time they figure it out, they’ve passed the point at which dual admission would matter. Even for those who show up knowing what they want, there are still issues of knowledge—most students likely don’t know that these programs exist—and lack of confidence that they’ll finish on time and/or have the resources to keep going. For students in precarious circumstances, something like that may seem unfathomably far away.

I’m a fan of dual admissions—especially when students in them are eligible for transfer scholarships—but it’s not surprising that students for whom economic precarity forces a short time horizon tend not to pursue them. They presume students with clear plans and ample resources. They’re great when they work, but if we really want them to work, we need to direct resources to students early and reliably.

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Matt Reed

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