• 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.


League, Day 1: Uncovering Hidden Talent

Developmental education, bachelor's degrees and more.


March 21, 2016

I’m at the League for Innovation conference in Chicago. Given how badly Illinois is treating its public higher education sector, I’m guessing this (and next month’s AACC, also here) may be the last hurrah for professional development for many of the people here for quite a while. I’d normally be annoyed to see both in the same city, but if ever a state needed home-field advantage, it’s Illinois now. And to be fair, the League and the AACC are getting harder to tell apart anyway.

Sunday’s panel lineup was hit-and-miss, but the hits were big, so I’ll focus on those. The theme for the day seemed to be uncovering hidden talent.

The first was a panel on scaling up ALP. ALP is the Accelerated Learning Program, which is a model developed by Peter Adams at the Community College of Baltimore County. It involves pairing sections of English 101 (or whatever the local number is) with specific sections of developmental English. Ten or so students in 101 would also take the developmental class, with the same instructor; the rest would be “natively placed” into 101. The idea is to recast developmental English from focusing on topic sentences and paragraph construction and to make it into as-needed support for writing college-level papers.  

Success rates in 101 for students who start in ALP, as opposed to a purely developmental class, are far higher. But it’s expensive, due to small class sizes, and it’s a bear logistically.  

Most of the colleges that have adopted ALP have done so on a small, pilot basis, so the challenge they’re up against now is how to take it from a smallish side dish to the main course. Still, I was struck that the panel never even bothered to define ALP; at this point, it has become established enough that baseline knowledge can be assumed. That’s progress, in its way.

I drew some solace from hearing that even CCBC didn’t hit majority ALP enrollment until the Fall of 2014, and it still isn’t entirely there. If even the mothership isn’t entirely there yet, the rest of us can’t feel so bad.

The panel included Adams himself, Jenny Schanker from the Michigan Community College Association, Jennifer Ernst from Henry Ford College, and Mark Blaauw-Hara, from North Central Michigan College.  

The group admitted that most ERP systems don’t play well with linked sections; Datatel/Colleague and Jenzabar were singled out for critique, though I don’t recall Banner being especially good either. The group claimed that the cost issue is mostly illusory; yes, small sections cost more, but you make up for it with increased retention and persistence. Maybe.  

In my own travels, much of the pushback on ALP comes from faculty in other disciplines. A Psych professor with five sections of 30 students might look at an English professor getting two sections’ worth of workload credit for 22 students and raise a question about workload equity. When I asked about that, I saw some heads nod, and one presenter even commented that one of his colleagues bragged about small classes and generated some unhelpful tension. The best answer I heard was that if improved retention and completion lead to stabilized enrollments overall, that benefits everybody. Well, yes, but it really doesn’t address the equity issue. I’m still looking for a helpful response on that one.

I was struck, too, that part of the CCBC ALP model involves integrating reading and writing. I hadn’t noticed that before, but it was consistent with the idea of moving students through more quickly. Food for thought.

The highlight of the day, though, was a panel on developmental placement reform, featuring John Hetts, from the CalPASS Plus Educational Results Partnership; Brad Bostian, from Central Piedmont CC in North Carolina; and Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC. They presented findings on multi-factor placement in California, North Carolina, and Virginia, respectively, but you almost wouldn’t have known they were talking about different states, given the consistency of the findings. Some takeaways:

  • High school GPA has stronger predictive validity than any exam. That holds true even across wealth gaps between districts. As Hetts pointed out, a student who manages to succeed in a struggling school does so with minimal support; that student must be pretty tenacious. And the data bear that out.
  • Students with a C in a 100-level class are likelier to graduate and transfer than students with a B in a developmental class.
  • High school GPA continues to outperform standardized tests for as long as ten years after high school graduation! (I wouldn’t have guessed that.)
  • ACT and SAT scores are better than Accuplacer, but they add nothing to GPA.
  • Hetts and Edgecombe both noted that the majority of the “equity gap” in graduation can be traced to initial placement.  In other words, PRIOR TO MATRICULATION, most of the achievement gap has already been baked into the cake. Hetts fired off a great phrase -- “the fierce urgency of now” -- to suggest that this is not okay.
  • Edgecombe noted that completion rates for college-level math rose less than you’d expect, given how many students were placed into it under multi-factor placement; the reason that many students placed into it didn’t take it. She noted that allowing students to procrastinate math is ultimately a policy choice, and we could choose differently.
  • Hetts noted that for every additional level of remediation a student is assigned, rates of completion of transfer-level courses drop by a third to a half.  That’s devastating.  In California 55% of African-American and Latino students are assigned three or more levels of remediation.
  • Bostian noted an average drop in GPA of 0.6 going from high school to college. That’s how they settled on a 2.6 high school GPA to indicate readiness.

As shocking as some of the findings were, they actually gave me hope. If it’s true that a majority of the achievement gap can be traced to the moments before actual enrollment, we can do something about that. To be fair, though, Edgecombe also noted that some of the multi-factor methods actually made the gaps worse. If only it were easy…

The day concluded with a panel discussing the community college bachelor’s degree movement. The panelists -- Constance Carroll, from the San Diego district; Jill Wakefield, from the Seattle community colleges; and Linda Thor, emeritus from Foothill-DeAnza -- gave a useful overview of the status of the CCBA nationally. Right now, 22 states have authorized community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, though only 17 have colleges that actually offer them. New York (!) was the first, though it has mostly gained traction outside the Northeast. The degrees are usually “Bachelor’s of Applied Science,” and restricted to workforce areas of high demand.  (As Linda Thor put it, “Not English, or history, or political science.”) Typical foci include healthcare, manufacturing, and certain locally-relevant technology programs.

Each chancellor mentioned the political challenges around CCBA’s: issues of faculty workload, fear of competition among the four-year schools, and a general fear of mission creep. But the early results -- especially from the Seattle colleges -- are encouraging, in terms of graduates’ salaries, placement, and acceptance to graduate programs. The trend is approaching critical mass nationally; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it become normal within the next few years.

So to summarize, incoming students are more capable than they get credit for, ALP is more useful than it gets credit for, and CCBA programs are more successful than most people thought they would be. Not a bad start!  On to day two...


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Matt Reed

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