• 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.


When Success Wears a Disguise

Changing course shouldn't be viewed as failure.

August 26, 2015

Longtime readers may be disappointed in me for this, but at one time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I spent a summer internship in city government. I was surrounded by lawyers, and I had a moment of clarity: I didn’t like them at all, and their work seemed dreary. That internship steered me away from what I thought was my career choice, and saved me a great deal of time and money.

Instead, I went to grad school. Insert joke here.

At one level, the internship could be read as a colossal failure; it steered me away from the path that it was supposed to reinforce. But in a personal sense, it was a raging success. It gave me valuable information at a key moment. The fact that the information was “negative” was beside the point. Making a choice involves rejecting other options; when I rejected law, I gained a much clearer sense of what to do next.

That kind of success is hard to capture institutionally, so we mostly don’t. But we should. We’d get a much more accurate picture of the value of what we do, and in the process, we’d get a fuller picture of how students actually use college.

When we talk about “student success,” for example, it’s often boiled down to graduation rates. By now, most of us can recite the reasons that the IPEDS rate is a silly and inaccurate measure for community colleges, and they’re all true. For example, many students who intend to transfer for a bachelor’s degree don’t intend to complete an associate’s along the way. Their plan is to do a year at the community college and then transfer. When the financial aid form asks whether they’re “degree-seeking,” they’re telling the truth when they answer “yes.” They just aren’t seeking it where they’re first enrolling.  But the forms don’t capture that nuance, so what the student perceives as successfully working a plan shows up in the numbers as institutional failure.

But in some cases, even a more straightforward case of walking away is really a kind of success.  

That’s true, for instance, in many “stackable” allied health programs. A student who gets a CNA certification and then stops out for a semester or two before returning may be doing something that makes perfect sense for her life, even if it doesn’t do wonders for our “degrees produced.” And a student who has the shock of recognition that a given program is just the wrong fit for him may have needed to learn that before he could learn the next thing.  

That’s why I’m a fan of statistics like “percentage of bachelor’s degree grads with significant community college credits.” A number like that pays attention to the long-term result, rather than to short-term twists in the path. Given the complexities of students’ lives, especially in this sector, insisting on counting only the most linear and traditional paths as successful simply gets it wrong.  

Within colleges, students who change majors are sometimes held against the programs that “lost” them. I consider that a severe mistake. I think everyone can do something, but they’re aren’t all the same thing. (As a baseball player, I’m a hell of a writer.) Sometimes they don’t know what their niche is until they’ve tried a few. In my more humanistic moments, I like to think that that’s what education is.  

None of this is to reject the need to get unnecessary barriers out of the way, to provide clear “default” pathways, or to hold colleges accountable for performance. It’s just to say that success comes in many forms, and if we’re serious about it, we should recognize all of them. Every day that I’m not a lawyer is evidence of that.



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