• 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.

Title

When Critiques Clash

Opinions not backed by facts on community colleges.

October 22, 2018
 
 

“The food here is terrible. And such small portions!” - old joke

Responding to critiques can be a challenge. Responding to contradictory critiques can be much harder. That’s how I felt last week reading Ryan Craig’s piece in IHE about community colleges’ alleged over-reliance on associate degrees.

The usual degree-related critique lobbed at community colleges is that too few students finish. The debates around the validity of the IPEDS grad rate are well-worn, at this point, and there’s plenty of debate to be had about apportioning responsibility among the institution, the student, and the larger political economy.  Still, though, both sides to that debate seem to share the idea that graduation is a good thing, and that more students graduating would be a good thing.

Craig, a Yale grad and managing director of a venture capital fund that aims to “disrupt” higher education, takes the opposite view. His critique is that too many students get associate degrees, and that we as a sector should focus on certificates instead. As he put it,

I understand why this is hard. First, the majority of community college students are enrolled in academic programs conceived of and led by academics who, by and large, would prefer to work at a selective four-year college, or a facsimile thereof (and were probably educated there); associate programs with general education up front are at least a facsimile of where they want to be.

Second, figuring out what certificate programs to offer requires dealing with employers, which is exhausting and often unfruitful. It also requires attracting and enrolling students in shorter programs, which is a ton of work for admissions and financial aid departments. Much easier to enroll students who will stick around for a few years, or at least plan to. Finally, driven by the transfer dream, associate programs at community colleges have become a cheap and seemingly convenient point of entry for public four-year institutions: broken on-ramps leading to nowhere.

I almost don’t know where to start. Craig has never worked in a community college, according to his bio, yet somehow -- no source given -- he “knows” that most community college faculty are pining for Yale. Having worked in three different community colleges over the last fifteen years, I can attest that his assertion is just silly. The overwhelming majority of faculty here understand and embrace the mission.  Yes, I can think of a few exceptions over the years, but I can count them on one hand. Community colleges don’t ask faculty to be super-researchers while also asking them to be super-teachers. Not every sector can say that.  One of the sector’s strengths is its relative clarity of mission, compared to the rest of higher ed. It’s about teaching. It’s not really about research, it’s not really about high-level athletics, and it’s not about palatial dorms.  It’s about doing the best job with English Composition. Many of us find that appealing.

Second, Craig utterly fails to unpack what it means to deal with employers. I don’t know if that’s because he assumes that it’s obvious, or because he just hasn’t thought it through.  If he were to show up to some employer advisory boards, as I have for many years, he’d hear the same things I hear: it’s all about the ‘soft skills.’ Those are exactly the skills that go beyond the kind of reductionist training he advocates.

“Much easier to enroll students who will stick around for a few years…”  Wow. Just, wow. We focus so much on persistence and completion precisely because so many students don’t stick around for a few years. 

“Broken on-ramps leading to nowhere.” From his piece, he clearly hasn’t heard of NJ Transfer, or Mass Transfer, or many of the statewide transfer agreements in the sector.  He also hasn’t looked at the basic, irreducible fact that at the end of the day, decisions about the awarding of transfer credit are made by the receiving institution, not the sending one.  In other words, if you want to reduce credit loss upon transfer, you don’t start with community colleges. You start with the four-year schools that feel empowered to cherry-pick courses.

As he would know if he had bothered to look, students who complete associate degrees get more of their courses accepted than students who transfer courses a la carte.  In transfer, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is common knowledge in the field. The crisis in transfer, as with the crisis in student loans, isn’t with graduates; it’s with dropouts.

But even those responses seem to miss Craig’s larger point.  Without quite spelling it out, he’s advocating the permanent tracking of workers by economic class.  He’s assuming that the proper education for the working class extends merely to more efficient ways of working; anything beyond that amounts to casting pearls before swine.  Why bother getting their hopes up? Not everybody can go to Yale, after all, and gain the insight powerful enough to tell the rest of us what we really think.

I can engage productively with the critique that says that we could do a better job of helping students complete. Sometimes the critique is used in bad faith, true, but at its core, it accepts the value of higher education. Craig’s argument dismisses higher education for the many with a wave. Yes, his view is ignorant, and arrogant, but those observations are almost beside the point. It’s fundamentally about cleaving the country into the few who deserve education, and the many who can only ever get training. Compared to that vision, I’ll embrace the “comprehensive” community college every single time.

 

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