• 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.


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Success at what, exactly?

January 9, 2023

Could a degree consist of almost anything? And should it?

Hans Andrews published an intriguing defense of the idea that it should. The argument is around the usefulness of a degree to a student. If most people don’t use college-level math at work, why should it be a universal requirement for any degree? Building a degree option that allows students to assemble almost any 60 credits (in consultation with an adviser, though it’s not clear what criteria that adviser would use) would allow students who are strong in a couple of areas to skip those in which they’re weaker. Ideally, working adults who may have prior college credits (“some college, no degree”) and some competencies earned through work experience should be able to knit together what they already have with a few traditional courses and get an associate’s degree.

Alternately, although Andrews doesn’t mention it, a student who changes majors a few times would be able to compile 60 credits and call it a degree.

I can see the humanitarian argument for it. To some extent, there’s even a class-based argument for it. Brown University doesn’t have gen ed requirements, for instance, and nobody thinks of Brown as a diploma mill. If Brown can do it, one might argue, why can’t everyone else? That’s especially true when colleges stipulate up front that the degree may not be transferable. The degree allows the student to check a box.

I was intrigued by the piece because it accidentally encapsulates the cross-pressures that community colleges have to navigate.

At one level, community colleges are judged by completion rates. Allowing students to avoid classes they find distasteful and/or difficult, and to mix courses without specializing in any one thing, could improve completion rates.

But community colleges are also increasingly judged by the labor market outcomes of their graduates. And I can’t imagine a degree like this helping much. Already we know that associate degrees in most liberal arts fields don’t have much payoff in themselves—that is, absent transfer, which is what those degrees are for—and those at least have reasonably expansive gen ed requirements. A degree that lacks both serious gen ed requirements and any particular occupational focus signifies what, exactly?

From an assessment perspective, it would be a nightmare. As a condition of accreditation, colleges are supposed to have relatively sophisticated outcomes-assessment protocols. Say what you will about them, but the point of them is to assure that graduates of a given program can do the things that the program is designed to enable them to do. In other words, assessment presumes the existence of goals. If the degree is so poorly defined that it has no goals, then on what basis could a college assess its success? The only available criteria would be external—salaries, mostly—but it’s unclear to me why this degree would do any better than the generic humanities/social science transfer degree. And that one actually transfers.

Community colleges are increasingly judged on both graduation rates and salaries of graduates, with little to no recognition of the tension between the two. Flood a market and wages drop. Scarcity is part of what drives high salaries. Doing dramatically better on the completion measure risks doing much worse on the wages measure, particularly for a degree as poorly defined as this one.

That’s not to say that every degree needs to be tightly prescribed. In my state, for instance, there’s a technical studies degree that allows for a registered apprenticeship in certain skilled trades to count for about half of an associate degree. The idea is that people who have completed apprenticeships in those fields can come to community college to pick up some gen eds and a few courses in areas like small business management and come out prepared to open their own shops. The apprenticeship provides the technical training and occupational focus; the college provides the rest. That can work; it avoids the directionlessness of a general studies degree.

Rather than watering down degrees to the point of meaninglessness, I’d much rather find ways of supporting students in achieving clear and substantive goals. Yes, sometimes that will involve taking courses they’d rather not, at least at first. Not everyone will succeed. But those who do will actually succeed at something. Lose that, and I don’t know we’d bother with degrees at all.

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Matt Reed

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