Changing the Measure of Success

Jane Arnold writes that in debating accountability, we need to remember that definitions of excellence have evolved over time and may need to change again.

December 1, 2006

I often mention in my community college classroom that 150 years ago probably none of us would have been in college.  "After all," I say, "there's no point in educating women. It's a waste. They're only going to get married and have babies. Besides, their brains can't take all that academic work." I, especially, wouldn't be in college, I add, being Jewish: "We don't want those people in colleges!" I go on to comment that the Irish are, of course, good only for domestic work and hard labor, all being drunkards and sleeping with the pigs as they do. Asians aren't even human, if you educate blacks they get uppity, and so on. And yet, here we are, all of us capable of receiving and appreciating a college education. Times have changed.

In some ways it was easier when only educated white men went to college. The instructors could assume a certain level of competence in Latin and the classics, a common creed, and agreement on appropriate dress and manners. I long ago gave up expecting students to know anything about Noah, Moses, and Jesus, let alone Socrates, Homer, and Galileo, but I was stunned when no one in a class this semester had any idea who "leaps tall buildings with a single bound," or that the author's allusion to the Man of Steel was sarcastic.

In exchange, however, we have people who contribute experiences that may never have been discussed in those all-white, all-male, four-year college classrooms: veterans of Viet Nam, the Gulf War, and Iraq bring vivid perspectives to texts that treat of war; speakers of languages like Tamil add to my growing certainty that English is the only language in the world that uses an apostrophe to designate the genitive tense. The experiences of Tillie Olsen's narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" come alive when women talk about their own pregnancies, childbirth, and raising children alone.

We still, however, look at an undergraduate college education as something that takes place mainly in a residential school and must be completed in four years. The definition of "success" in any college reflects this no-longer-accurate idea that for everyone ages 18 to 22 (23 at the most), college is the dominant life experience, and the outcome must be a diploma.

At both community colleges where I have taught, a "successful" student completes an associate degree, and does so within three years of entering a program designed to take two years. By this definition, then, the young woman who just transferred to the four-year school with a 3.97 average and a substantial scholarship, 12 credits shy of a community college degree, is officially a failure. She didn't complete a degree program. This example is extreme; however, legislatures and public policy makers have long cited low graduation rates and students who take too long to complete their work as evidence of failure in community colleges. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that the Public Policy Institute of California has issued a report sharply criticizing the retention and transfer rates of California community colleges, concluding that "if community college continues to be the dominant form of higher education for these students, achievement rates for these students must improve."

Why? Or, rather, why is "achievement" built on the old model of the all-white, all-male, four-year residential college? While the report acknowledges the multiple constituencies of community colleges, it still sees the completion of a degree within a certain time limit as the primary goal.

As a non-traditional student, I began my college education at 23 when I took one course in Irish history with John Kelleher (may he rest in peace) at Harvard University Extension. I took it because I had a passion for Irish history, and I took it for credit because I figured, "why not?" Someday in a million years someone might give me a college degree for this. Twelve years later, 8 months pregnant, and having taken a quarter of my college credits in Harvard College (daytime) classes, I received my bachelor's degree with honors. In the meantime, my leisurely pace had enabled me to explore classes thoroughly, two at a time, and evolve into a Jewish studies major who eventually published in national journals. That's something I may not have achieved in a conventional four-year residential program when I was 18.

Comments on the Inside Higher Ed article on the California report point out that community college students have often been out of school for several years. Many, even the 18-year-olds, come with multiple responsibilities; they may be socially, educationally, or economically disadvantaged. They may arrive with physical, emotional, or learning disabilities. I have taught many students who don't succeed at community college because they are taking four or five courses, working 40 hours a week, and raising children or otherwise contributing to their households. Some have little idea why they are in school or what they want from a college education. Attending college part-time would make sense for these people, too many of whom fail and fail and fail class after class.

Why don't they go part-time? For the growing number of students ages 18 to 24, the top reason is health insurance: If they don't take four courses, they are not covered under their parents' health insurance. If the health insurance companies would take a long hard look at this destructive policy, we might not have so many students failing courses in which they are enrolled solely to maintain that full-time status. But the health insurance model is based on the traditional college model:  four years, your parents support you, and you're out.

Another reason students don't go part-time is the structure of financial aid. Again, if the federal and state governments took a long hard look at what they are funding, they might decide that funding a part-time A-average student who makes steady progress is as useful as funding the frantic full-time C-average student who regularly fails one course a semester.

That student may be frantic because she is under pressure to finish the degree quickly, and, while the pressure comes from several directions, much of it comes from the academic expectations based on the traditional model and from organizations like the one that issued the report. Admissions departments, enrollment divisions, counseling centers, instructors, and ultimately students are under subtle but constant pressure to "succeed" by having students complete that degree and complete it "on time" -- in the time determined by model of the all-white, all-male, traditional four-year residential college. Why?

Rodney was a 35-year-old Gulf War veteran, father of three, who passed my intensive remedial reading and writing course having read not one but six books entirely through for the first time in his life. At the end of the year, he decided not to pursue his associate degree, but to transfer to a commercial computer training program. The last time I heard from him, he had graduated from the computer course and been accepted to a much higher paying job, pending a security clearance. Yet he didn't succeed in finishing the college program or transferring to another recognized degree program. He didn't even succeed in achieving his initial goal because, based on his experience, he changed that goal. Is this what failure looks like?

Measuring success in community colleges is not as easy or fast as tallying graduation rates. Colleges may need to make an effort to find out why students like Rodney do not finish or transfer. Because I persisted in investigating, I know that Marc disappeared mid-semester because his mother died and he had to return to his home in the next state to care for his son. Ryan withdrew from all his classes a week before classes began because his National Guard unit was mobilized, and Karen called me from her husband's new posting to ask for help in transferring credits. Some of these students may return to our college, but the college can hardly be held accountable for the fact that they left. The first step in accountability is to find out why students have not returned.

As for when colleges should be held accountable, perhaps we need to look not at graduation and transfer rates but at what students themselves have gained from their experiences. When Fred, who insisted that he hates poetry, analyzed Robert Bly’s “Gratitude to Old Teachers” with such grace and insight that I carried his final exam around with me for three days because reading it made me happy, the college succeeded. Fred succeeded.

When "the boys came home" in the 1940s, the GI Bill helped to change the college model to include men of modest means, many of whom had served in the military after high school and who helped establish the model of returning adult students who juggle family and school obligations. In the 1960s and 1970s, we changed the college model to include women, blacks, Asians, and others traditionally not entitled to an education. In the 1980s and 1990s we changed the college model again to include people who need ramps and elevators and special testing accommodations to gain access to and complete their college educations. Now it's time to change the model again. A community college is open to all people who want to learn. Success means students achieve what they came for: one class, one semester, or a degree that takes ten years. Perhaps after we've redefined success for community colleges, we can share our new model with students now "failing" in four-year colleges.


Jane Arnold is the reading specialist and an assistant professor of English at Adirondack Community College.  She has taught at the community college level for 15 years and has also taught in private four-year colleges.


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