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Reform to What End?
April 20, 2014 - 9:07pm

Last week IHE published a pair of articles on developmental education reform, one by Hunter Boylan of the National Center for Developmental Education and the other by Stan Jones of Complete College America.  Each piece made sense, on its own terms, but seeing them next to each other I was struck by the number of meanings that can hide in the word “reform.”

What, exactly, should “developmental education reform” mean? 

From the inside, I tend to think of it as “getting more students to college-level work.”  The great contribution of Complete College America, Achieving the Dream, and the rest of the Completion Agenda movement has been to point out the key role of time in student success.  Taking too long defeats the purpose, since it demoralizes the student, allows life to get in the way, and burns up way too much financial aid.  (That’s especially true since the lifetime Pell limits were reduced.)  Shortening the path -- whether through acceleration, co-teaching, self-paced, or whatever else -- offers the rare win-win of better results at lower cost.

But that’s where things get tricky.

I’ve followed (and participated in) these discussions long enough that I see different people assuming different purposes to the whole enterprise.  That matters when you move from the rare win-win to the more typical choices to be made.

If the point of reform is to increase the number of students who eventually graduate, then we have to confront the possibility that successful reform will cost significant money.  And I’m not talking about the easy kind -- one-off grant-funded projects, say.  I’m talking about the hardest kind of money to get: sustained, ongoing, operating funding.  The real stuff. 

Given supply and demand, it’s also possible that a significant increase in degree grads would actually reduce the economic payoff per degree.  (I know, I know, the economists out there will accuse me of the “lump of labor” fallacy.  But in the short term, it’s not a fallacy; the market is what the market is, and I’ve never understood how it is that labor is supposed to obey supply and demand, except sometimes.)  Over the long term, I’d like to think that a more educated population will pay off in any number of ways.  But over the first, say, six months after graduation, there are no guarantees.

On the other side, I’m increasingly convinced that what many people mean by “reform” is “cutting.”  If the cuts happen to lead to better educational outcomes, then great, but if they don’t, cut anyway. 

The philosophical position underlying this view is a kind of fatalism, often rooted in a kind of intellectual essentialism.  The reasoning runs like this: only a set percentage of students are really college material.  Continuing to humor those who aren’t just gives them false hope.  Better to cut everyone’s losses early, and to turn the rest loose to find other ways to succeed. If remediation succeeds, it’s only postponing the inevitable; if it fails, it’s only telling you what you already knew.  Rather than pouring good money after bad, best to just cut the Gordian knot.

The two camps can agree on streamlining existing sequences, though for different reasons.  But as soon as you move to the next idea, the differences emerge.  Are we freeing up resources to do a better job of educating in other ways?  Or are we freeing up resources to continue to feed the ever-gaping maw of upward income distribution? 

Until we know what we’re trying to reform towards, progress will be sporadic when it happens at all.  Right now we’re doing the equivalent of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time.  Nothing good happens when you do that.  But if we don’t know where we’re trying to go, there’s an argument for each.


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