• 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.


Pipelines To and Fro: the League, Day Three

Success through limited choices.


March 10, 2015

The theme of Tuesday’s League conference was pipelines. Refreshingly, the discussion of pipelines was much more thoughtful, and less mechanistic, than is usually true.

The day opened well. Shanna Jaggars, from the CCRC, presented with Stuart Cochran, from Guttman Community College, on guided pathways.

That sentence requires its own explanatory paragraph. But it’s worth it.

The CCRC is the Community College Research Center, which is based in the Teachers’ College at Columbia University.  It’s a wonderfully useful resource for empirical studies of community college reforms.  Guttman is a small, relatively new community college in New York City -- established circa 2010 -- that requires all of its students to attend full-time. And “guided pathways” is the idea championed by Complete College America, among others, that students complete at the highest rates when they have the fewest choices.  The theory is that students get lost when they have too many options, and they often don’t know enough to make good choices, so colleges actually do students a service by reducing their choices.  

Guttman largely embodies the guided pathways idea. Students choose from among a handful of programs -- I think five, though I didn’t write it down -- and once the program is chosen, the courses are set. Students have to attend full-time. They receive intensive advising.  So far, the graduation rate is exceeding both national norms and local expectations: their three-year rate is at 41 percent, and they expect it to tick up another couple of points by June.

As proof of concept, it’s impressive. Put a whole bunch of reforms together, keep the staff/student ratio enviably low, pour money in, screen out part-time students, screen students for the right “non-cognitive skills” (often called “non-cogs,” inelegantly) and yes, you can move the needle. If the needle didn’t move, we’d have to start asking some difficult questions.

As with proofs of concept generally, though, it’s not exactly the sort of thing that most of us could replicate. It’s expensive, for example, and it would require dismantling courses and programs -- and therefore tenured faculty positions -- that lay outside the pathways. It doesn’t lend itself to students who need to be part-time, to students with transfer credits, to credit for prior learning, or to adults generally. Screening for “non-cogs” seems to violate the mission of open access. And the whole enterprise carries a frustrating whiff of classism: elites can attend colleges that let them explore, but everyone else needs to content themselves with a set of choices you can count on one hand. For those of us motivated by idealism, that’s a deservedly difficult sell.

Still, if taken as a bundle of options, many colleges could remove a few items from the bundle to good effect. For example, we’ve found a happy medium between the “infinite menu” structure and the “any color you want, as long as it’s black” version of GPS in our allied health area. The first course students take is an introduction to health careers, which helps them make sense of the choices that follow. By offering guidance early, the theory goes, we can enable more thoughtful use of choices later. So far, it seems to be working.

The CCRC followed with a discussion of faculty professional development in the context of educational reform. The key, unsurprisingly, is resources. Faculty need ongoing support beyond the one-and-done workshop model, especially in the hairy first semester that a new method or program is actually running. And to the extent possible, the development should be faculty-driven. As one audience member pointed out, in practice, that means stipends. In the absence of stipends, you just don’t get the sustained turnout to make it work.

I maintain that any foundation or major funder who wants to make an enormous difference at scale in the community college world could do so by setting up a national program for professional development. Any foundations or funders who are interested are invited to contact me.  I’m entirely serious.

The day ended with an explicit discussion of community colleges as part of the larger ecosystem of higher education. I was on a panel with Paula Krebs, the Arts and Sciences dean from Bridgewater State, and Vanessa Ryan, Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Brown University, on the New England cross-sector partnership. The idea behind the panel -- “What if Graduate Schools Listened to Community Colleges?” -- was to outline a partnership through which graduate programs would learn what community colleges need in their faculty, and bring that knowledge to graduate training. In other words, instead of looking at the pipeline of students to universities, we looked at the pipeline of new faculty from universities. What should new Ph.D.’s know about teaching-intensive institutions?

The crowd was, uh, selective, which I choose to attribute to an unfriendly timeslot. But the discussion was lively and thoughtful, and I remain convinced that the basic concept makes sense. Dean Ryan noted that many graduate students secretly love teaching, and even harbor dreams of working at teaching-intensive places, but hide that ambition from their advisors for fear of being written off as academically unserious.  As long as focusing on students is considered a prima facie sign of being a lightweight, we will have a problem on our hands.

The partnership is still in the early stages, but I’m optimistic. (You can check it out at crosssectorpartnership.wordpress.com) If the discussion at the panel is any indication, the idea has legs.  Helpful ideas from wise and worldly readers are welcome.

Back to the ranch for Wednesday.  Time to make some innovations real...


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