• 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 Three: It’s Not That Simple

Placement, public health, Gen X presidents and more.

March 22, 2016

Fittingly, the theme of day three of the League conference wound up being “it’s not that simple.”

The first presentation, on a multi-factor placement experiment in New York, set the tone. Multi-factor placement is becoming an obsession of mine. It’s the idea of getting away from a single placement test -- usually Accuplacer or Compass, but it could really be anything -- as a way of steering students either into or away from developmental coursework. It’s becoming increasingly clear from the literature that when these tests are used this way, they tend to “underplace” students in massive proportions. Given what we know about excessive time-to-degree depressing graduation rates, getting placement right upfront holds the promise of making a significant difference at relatively minimal cost.

The panel presented a project that the CAPR has been doing for a couple of years with several community colleges in New York State. Elisabeth Barnett from CAPR/CCRC, Mary Perrine from SUNY Jefferson, and Dana Stilley, from Rockland Community College, discussed the details of a new placement protocol that combines high school GPA’s, test scores, and a few other factors (I didn’t catch them all) to place entering students.  

It’s one of those “easy until you try it” enterprises. Conceptually, it’s a piece of cake. You just replace a grid of cut scores from a single exam with an “if-then” set of a few decision rules, give testing a heads-up, and have at it.  Right?


As all three panelists noted, placement involves a lot more than placement. You need to have faculty on board. You need to have access to high school transcripts, and in enough time to use them. You need to be able to make your ERP system cooperate, which is no small task. You need to ensure that the advisors and counselors are up to speed on both the rules and the logic behind them, so they’ll have grounds for granting exceptions or not. You’ll need to adjust your course schedules, since the proportions of developmental, as opposed to college-level, sections will change. You’ll have to prepare the faculty teaching the remaining developmental sections for a new profile, since the higher-end students will no longer be there.

Early results from Jefferson and Rockland are encouraging, but the message conveyed was “this is very labor-intensive.” When money for labor is at a premium, this is no small consideration.  I still think it’s worth doing -- the alternative amounts to harming students for the sake of money -- but it has such wide-reaching ripple effects that it has to be done deliberately.

The keynote was a pair of presentations by Richard Riegelman and Peggy Honore on “public health” and community colleges. Public health is a wide-ranging field covering everything from educators to epidemiologists, but the major growth area now is “navigators.” Navigators are to health care what academic advisors are to higher ed: their job is to help students/patients make their way through an incredibly complicated system. If anything, the healthcare system is even more complicated than higher ed, at least in America, so the need is that much greater. Honore showed the results of a study of the effects of incorporating navigators into patient care teams; it showed improved outcomes, including fewer hospital readmissions and greater “medication adherence.”  

‘Riegelman briefly mentioned community colleges as great potential sources of navigators, due to the diversity of their students, but didn’t go into detail. That was a missed opportunity. In many communities, the need isn’t just for “navigators” or even “advocates,” but for navigators and advocates who are linguistically and/or culturally attuned to that community.  Given their deep community roots, community colleges are ideally suited to train people from a given community to serve that same community.  Instead of trying to teach the Harvard grad cultural sensitivity, take the resident of the community and empower him with knowledge of the system.  We did some of that at Holyoke, with terrific results, and it strikes me as a generalizable model.

For entirely selfish reasons, I checked out the “Generation X Presidents Tell All” panel. It was worth it. The presidents -- JoAlice Blondin, from Clark State Community College; Joe Seabrooks, from Metropolitan State; and Allen Goben, from Tarrant County CCD -- hit a number of common themes: relative indifference to titles, the importance of work/life “harmony,” and the importance of finding common ground when Board members and/or faculty from other generations outnumber you.  As with the previous year, I enjoyed Blondin’s point about asking questions about new construction; if your growth is online, why build?  That should be obvious, but to folks who came up in a different time, growth and construction were synonymous.  They aren’t anymore.

Seabrooks got the best line of the day: “We’re not in the higher education business. We’re in the hope business.” Exactly so. The challenge is bringing that hope when the economic and demographic conditions combine to form serious headwinds.  

The day ended with a presentation by Courtney Brazile, from Eastfield College, Dallas, on the Men’s Empowerment program there. Brazile’s presentation style could be called “energetic,” so it was a great way to end the day, but the substance was there.  And it even ended with a group selfie, in which I participated. Photographic evidence exists somewhere...  

The program is designed to improve the retention and success of men of color, though it’s open to others as well. Brazile went through a series of exercises and action steps, but the common denominator was the effort to turn hope into reality through respect. There’s no one president of the group; instead, it has a full slate of officers, so more students can have titles and responsibilities. (This is the rare case where “administrative bloat” is a positive good.)  The program features monthly awards for academic achievements.  It’s all about addressing the students as capable people who belong in college.  It’s counter-messaging to the stereotypes and microaggressions that students hit too often.  Some of it resonated with me, some didn’t, but I’m not the target demographic.  It’s about the students, and it should be.

None of these issues lends itself to an easy fix. Hearing from people who are making headway on them anyway gives me hope. I’ll take it.



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