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On Sunday, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews published a shallow and unhelpful piece bashing community colleges, culminating in a terrible policy recommendation. Happily for me, New Jersey went ahead and promulgated a much smarter proposal last month.
Mathews’s piece, which mostly relies on the opinions of one high school teacher, argues that community colleges’ low graduation rates render them dropout factories, as opposed to places like Duke and George Mason. Besides, community college credits don’t always transfer. Therefore, he suggests, better just to send students directly to four-year schools and let community colleges die on the vine.
It’s hard to know where to start.
Longtime readers know well that the IPEDS rate doesn’t fit community college students. Many students do a year and then transfer, getting a degree in the normative time but showing up in the stats as dropouts. Moving to a more reality-based measure, such as the Voluntary Framework for Accountability, increases those success rates by double digits. (For example, according to the College Scorecard, my own college has a “graduation rate” of 31 percent, but a graduation-plus-transfer rate of 57 percent. That’s not a rounding error.)
Blaming community colleges for credits not transferring is silly; we don’t make those decisions. Those decisions are made by receiving institutions. I fully agree that there’s room for greater accountability among four-year schools to justify denying credits, but that’s not our call. We already have good data nationally showing that students who start at community colleges do better upon transfer than “native” students, which suggests that we’re doing something right. We also have good data showing that nearly half of the bachelor’s degree holders in the U.S. have community college credits, whether or not they picked up associate degrees. Neither of those data points fits the “dropout factory” narrative.
But the single most obvious, screaming, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me flaw in Mathews’s argument is a direct comparison of open-admission colleges with highly selective colleges. Brookdale takes the top 100 percent of its applicants. According to the College Scorecard, Duke takes 9 percent. And the median SAT scores at Duke are well over 700 in both verbal and math. Duke students as a group are academically well prepared, with educated parents, high incomes and a disproportionate share of private-school backgrounds. If you screen out anyone without a track record of being good at school, you will have high success rates. If those students went to community college instead, they’d graduate at remarkably high rates. It’s what they do. Our students look much more like America. To pretend that those variables don’t matter is absurd.
Does Duke have an auto tech program that I missed? A respiratory therapy program? If not, from where will the people who do those jobs come?
And that’s without even addressing finances. Part of the high success rate at elite institutions comes from the sheer level of resources they have on hand. Duke charges roughly 10 times what we do, and the annual revenue generated by its endowment is more than our entire operating budget, even though we have more students. (As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out with different examples a while back, just the exemption on capital gains taxes for Duke costs taxpayers more than all of our operating subsidies put together. “Private” is a relative term.) I don’t imagine taxpayers wanting to pony up Duke-level tuition and fees for millions of community college students around the country, nor do I anticipate the selective places throwing open their doors. They had a chance to do so in the pandemic; instead, they chose to get even more selective. There’s a reason for that.
Turning our backs on community colleges would be catastrophic for the country. Luckily, my own state came up with a much better idea. Through the Garden State Guarantee, students below a certain income threshold can get two years free at a community college in N.J., followed by two free years at a public four-year college. The genius of that plan is that it understands that for many students, the message should not be “community college or a four-year college.” It should be “community college AND a four-year college.” Starting at a place that specializes in the first two years, and does so at low cost, serves many students well -- the ones who go on outperform “native” freshmen. For others who choose to jump into the workforce sooner -- entirely absent from Mathews’s piece -- two years of community college can be just the thing. Princeton is lovely and wonderful, but it will never be open to the masses. We already are.
Much of this is probably old news to people who read Inside Higher Ed. But far more people read The Washington Post and are exposed to arguments like Mathews’s. Here’s hoping that a virtual message in a bottle reaches some important people before Mathews’s superficial and silly broadside does real damage.