When the Atlantic  decided to tell us how to escape the “community college trap,” I had to look. It’s the same part of my mind that makes me smell the milk even though I know it’s spoiled. Nothing good is likely to come of it, but curiosity is a force in itself.
The article wasn’t nearly as awful as its title suggested. It was largely a profile of the ASAP program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. ASAP has improved student retention rates by being remarkably prescriptive about what students do. They have to enroll full-time, for example, and every student gets an “intrusive” advisor who functions as something between a truant officer and a personal trainer.
By all accounts, the program is doing an admirable job of getting students through college in a reasonable time. It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement. The lay reader would be forgiven for wondering why we don’t all do that.
Among other things, it solves -- by essentially ruling out -- the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility. Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program. (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.) The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped. And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work. Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.
Seriously. Try me. I dare you.
Beyond the money, though -- and let’s not forget the money -- a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges. There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.
As Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out  last Fall, the porousness of American higher education -- most notably in the community college sector -- should be seen as a feature, not a bug. Non-traditional students often have complicated lives, and don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time. The “feature” argument is particularly strong if you define the benefits of college as going beyond degree production. If students actually learn things, and develop skills, then even leaving without a degree may still prove a real benefit.
(Actually, this suggests an intriguing use of outcomes assessment. Has anyone done a serious analysis of the academic skills of students who leave college after, say, two semesters? I’m referring here to students who passed classes and chose not to return. Work to be done…)
None of that is to deny that many students would benefit from colleges being more focused on legibility and pathways. It makes sense for colleges to offer more guidance than they used to. It’s just to suggest that some pathways will not be as linear as others, and that doesn’t necessarily signify failure.
Enrollment volatility has real consequences for institutions themselves. As public subsidies have covered smaller percentages of operating budgets and tuition/fees more, the impact on college budgets of enrollment fluctuations has increased. The relative buffer of subsidies is thinner than it once was. That means, among other things, that it’s even harder to keep the percentage of full-time faculty as high as it should be. You don’t want to hire permanent employees when your budget whipsaws from one year to the next. A more stable budgetary base -- hint, hint -- would at least open up the option of more full-time staffing. It’s no coincidence that full-time hiring fell off a cliff at the exact same time that state appropriations did.
I understand the impulse to try to get volatility under control. I get it. To some degree, I even like it. But to the extent that the measures necessary to do that involve doubling the per-student budget, and assuming that community college students generally have the option of going full-time, I’m not convinced that the ASAP model is a practical answer for most places. If we had the means to try it, we wouldn’t be in a trap in the first place.