• 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.



A powerful word.

May 26, 2022

If you were a first-generation college student at a community college, and you were thinking about where to transfer after the associate degree, which of the following messages would be likelier to pique your interest?

  1. We have a terrific program, and we take many transfer students every year.
  2. We have a terrific program, and we guarantee admission to transfer students who graduate with a 3.0 or better.

Sometimes we lose sight of the appeal of security. “Guarantee” is a magic word. It isn’t quite as powerful as “free,” but it carries weight. For a student who isn’t sure about the whole process and who doesn’t want to apply to a dozen schools, message B offers security and legibility. If my grades are good enough, I’m in. I don’t have to wonder or twist myself into knots trying to improve my chances. The criterion is understandable, and I know whether or not I meet it.

As any experienced consumer knows, most guarantees come with asterisks. Those asterisks can cover a lot of ground. Get burned by asterisks enough times, and you start to distrust words like “free” or “guaranteed.” That’s where option B, above, is particularly appealing. It puts the qualifier up front, in language that’s easy to understand.

Institutionally, of course, there’s a danger in transparent guarantees. They rest on certain assumptions about circumstances. What if the guarantee is far more successful than initially imagined and a school is flooded with more applicants than it can handle? On the other side, abrupt new supply constraints—say, a pandemic or a state budget cut—can make even predictable demand problematic. I understand the institutional reluctance to make promises when conditions are uncertain, which they usually are.

Community colleges, oddly enough, haven’t always capitalized on guaranteed admission. We usually talk about “open” or “open-door” admissions and use the language of “access.” It would be at least equally true if we offered “guaranteed” admission. If you have a high school diploma or the equivalent (such as a GED), you’re in.

For the four-year schools to whom students transfer, though, the messaging should be easy. Coming out of the harrowing experience of the last few years, there’s a real market for peace of mind. I offer this advice to any partners who wish to take it. The students will thank you with their feet.


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