• 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.



Cultural mores of the upper class and getting ahead.

May 25, 2015

Over the weekend we caught up with some old friends, many of whom have kids the same ages as ours. Without my bringing it up, the conversation shifted at one point to dual (and concurrent) enrollment programs in high schools. The general sentiment was in favor, with broad agreement that the senior year of high school is often relatively unproductive for many students, and presents an opportunity to do something better. Picking up some community college classes for transcripted credit -- as opposed to placement, as the AP offers -- comes close to a free lunch, in this view.

Later on, a piece made the rounds on Twitter about “pedigree” in the context of elite hiring. Pedigree used to refer either to literal family lineage, or to one’s alma mater. Now it encompasses a wider range of class markers. The degree to which someone fits the cultural mores of the upper class -- whatever her lineage -- determines her desirability in hiring and promotion. Part of the long-understood role of elite institutions is to inculcate (or solidify) the ways of being in the world characteristic of the elites. In other words, while the academic content of the higher tiers of higher education matters, the cultural milieu matters just as much, if not more.

And I thought, hmm.

To the extent that community college courses are taken in the context of high school -- whether on the college campus, the high school campus, online, or wherever -- they carry the stamp of a community college. Compared to the typical high school, that may be impressive, but compared to upper tier colleges and universities, it lacks a certain prestige. Higher education tends to define excellence by exclusivity, which necessarily puts open-admission institutions at a disadvantage.  

The dual/concurrent enrollment model may present a dilemma for elite colleges. To the extent that they accept students with significant numbers of credits from community colleges, they reduce their own chances to inculcate the non-academic folkways that justify their prices. But to the extent that they don’t, they’re missing out on some of the most motivated, highest-quality students out there.

In my student days, AP courses and exams served to distinguish some students from others. But now that AP is becoming relatively common, it’s losing its value as a signal. Community college courses are much more valid academic indicators, in many ways, but as indicators of pedigree, they’re widely scorned.  Why join a club that would accept you as a member?

I don’t make a habit of feeling sorry for admissions representatives at elite places, but I honestly have to wonder: in the applications lottery for elite places, do community college credits help applicants stand out, or does their pedigree get questioned?  

At least in principle, this should be empirically answerable, so I’ll put it to my wise and worldly readers. Has anyone seen or done studies answering the question of the impact of community college credits on elite admissions? Alternately, are there any admissions reps or similarly situated people in a position to know, who are comfortable sharing? I’m curious whether the academic achievement outweighs the pedigree.


Back to Top