Monday, March 20, 2006


Howler of the Year, or, Shame on Tamara Draut

I just finished Strapped, by Tamara Draut (Doubleday, 2005). It’s supposed to be about why 20- and 30- somethings are uniquely disadvantaged in the contemporary economy. She’s not entirely wrong: she correctly notes that housing inflation is hardest on the young, since they didn’t own something in the first place, and she also notes correctly that student loan burdens are higher than they used to be, even after inflation. The double-whammy of housing inflation and increased reliance on student loans puts new entrants into the workforce at a disadvantage, relative to the last few generations.

True so far.

Then, she gets to the details.

Her chapter on higher education starts promisingly, noting that the increased wage premium for bachelor’s degree holders over college grads reflects not higher wages for college grads, but lower ones for high school grads. People go to college to play economic defense. Okay. Then she notes the increased levels of student loan indebtedness of today’s grads, which she traces, correctly, to a combination of rapidly-rising tuition and decreased reliance on grants. So far, so good. Then she gets to community colleges, which enroll nearly half of all college students in the U.S. The subchapter heading is...and I swear, I’m not making this up...

Better Than Nothing: Community College (it’s on page 35)

Astonishingly, she manages to top that on page 36:

“Unlike universities, community colleges aren’t geared solely to the needs of undergraduates.”

Although it’s only March, this is a strong contender for Howler of the Year.

If you’ve ever been to a university, you would have noticed graduate students. You also would have noticed faculty who only teach graduate students, and graduate students who teach undergraduate students. You would have noticed faculty jockeying to avoid lower-level undergrad courses like the plague. You would have noticed gargantuan sums of cash going into football stadiums, and research labs, and student centers with climbing walls.

If you wander around your typical community college, you would find actual faculty teaching lower-level undergraduate courses. You would not find a football stadium. You would not find substantial research labs. You would not find climbing walls. You would also find much lower tuition levels, reflecting the no-frills atmosphere and allowing the non-wealthy to attend.

Draut goes on to complain that it’s a travesty that millions of ‘college-ready’ students are shunted into community colleges, rather than ‘real’ colleges.

This, from someone bemoaning the rise of student loan debt. Give. Me. A. Break.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Draut’s book, many students who start at cc’s transfer to four-year schools upon receiving their associate’s degree (or even before). Our stats show that our grads graduate their four-year schools at higher rates than their own ‘native’ students do, which I suspect is at least somewhat a reflection of how seriously the upper-level schools take intro courses.

(As near as I can tell, cc’s exist in her estimation solely to remediate. Yet, in the real world, we catch flak for remediating too much, and not catering enough to the ‘college-ready’ student. I think she spent too much time in Manhattan.)

In fact, there are states in which the entire public higher education system is built on transfer. In Washington state, for example, the U of Washington doesn’t even teach freshman or sophomore courses. Students are expected to transfer them in from cc’s, and to start as juniors. Of course, to know that, she would have had to have done her research. You know, like they do at universities.

The shame of it is that such catastrophic failures mar what could otherwise be a useful book. The topic of the book as a whole is a good one. The ‘housing bubble’ in the areas where the jobs are puts young people in a bind: go where you can find work but not housing, or go where you can find housing but not work. In my area, house prices have roughly doubled in the last five years, and they were high before that. If I were just breaking in now, I’d be hosed. This is a real problem. Real solutions are hard to imagine. Draut’s book does absolutely nothing to help, and it could actually hurt, if anybody important actually reads it. Shame on Tamara Draut.

Sort of a tangent, but I've had a lot of recent housing conversations. When we first started looking for a house, we had to look, as a starting point, 15 minutes away from work. We were considering as far away as 45. Someone asked us why we didn't buy in the neighborhood of the school. I said, well because the average price is about 600,000. They had purchased a house 30 years ago within walking distance. I can't believe they had no idea about the cost (thus the need to raise faculty salaries too).

Then just the other day, I was sitting in on a conversation about work-family balance and someone (a staff member like myself) suggested a housing subsidy so that people could live nearby (helping with the commute issue). I again cited the average housing costs. They had no idea.

It amazes me how clueless some people are.

Like you said, a little research goes a long way. :)
That's pretty bad on Draut's part indeed. I'm a prof in a 4-year liberal arts college but cut my teeth in the classroom as an adjunct at a community college. I had the same prejudices as Draut going into that adjuncting job, but I came away from it realizing that cc's serve a unique role in the higher ed ecosystem (it's NOT remediation) and that 4-year schools and cc's serve a complementary role, not one in which cc's are "less than" 4-year colleges.

I think it's safe to conclude that Draut is going on secondhand information alone when she writes this stuff.

And by the way, I really hate it when 4-year colleges try to fill the same role as community colleges (e.g. offering 2-year or Associate's degrees). Two different but related roles, people -- it's not hard to understand if you just do a little research.

I'd also add that we have a lot of students at our place who would be MUCH better served by community colleges (and not for remediation purposes) but are in our school, and hating it, because they also have this feeling that cc's aren't real schools.
I have to agree with Robert above -- I often get the impression that the public doesn't quite know the purpose of a CC. Frankly, I didn't know it either until I started teaching at my first CC. This is simply part of a larger public image problem, and part of the reason my CC has decided to have well-funded academic extracurricular activities -(debate, theater, music) -- in an attempt to reverse that image.
UW does teach lower division courses, Dean Dad. Plenty of them. And they've raised the transfer standards. Washington State has one of the most badly-organized higher ed systems I've ever heard of. The CCs are slightly better organized, but that's not saying much.

And Robert, I disagree -- a huge amount of our jobs is remediation. It's just that we have to do it in the context of real university-level classes. Or some of us do -- those of us who are still grading essay exams while our colleagues in the same field are already on break because their grading amounted to running the scan-tron machine.
Ah, nuts. I'll have to check my sources on the Washington transfer system. In any event, transfer from cc's to four-year schools is quite common.

Here I am, all het up, and some fact comes along and complicates things. Grrr. This must be how Rumsfeld feels all the time.
Dean Dad, your blog and my colleague's recent job search at local CC's has changed my opinion of CC's for good. Sounds to me like you should write a book to improve the public image of institutions like yours...I'd read it and I bet others would too!
The flagship UW campus in Seattle offers all four years of the undergraduate program, plus graduate programs. The newer suburban campuses (Bothell and Tacoma) initially offered just upper division courses. This was initially designed in response to a capacity bottleneck-overall, the state higher ed system, including community colleges, had enough space for the first two years of college but not enough capacity for juniors and seniors. However, the Bothell and Tacoma campuses of UW will admit freshmen as of fall 2006.
sweet jesus, what a stupidly blinkered approach. if CC's don't server undergraduates, then quite who does she think they serve??
why is it, when one applies for a cc teaching job, one has to carefully tailor one's application latter to foreground how much you are committed to teaching undergrads as opposed to pursuing research? (not that both are not embraced, but a difference emphases).
She has GOT to be kidding me. It's UNIVERSITIES who primarily serve undergraduates and community colleges who do not?!

I would be ROTFLMAO if this level of ignorance wasn't so sad.
I actually laughed out loud when I read the line about universities catering to undergrads. WHICH universities, exactly, is she talking about? I've been at two, and I would say that "undergraduate education" is a pretty low priority.

I agree with sp-- this sounds like a call to action for you, Dean Dad!
Her email address is online. I'm thinking that someone (maybe quite a few people) should email a link to this post to her...
True about the UW campuses -- I'd forgotten about the totally idiotic Tacoma and Bothell branches. Oh -- and Dean Dad? I'm a CC transfer student ;-)
Maybe when Tamara said that "communities colleges don't just serve undergraduates" she was addressing the students who enjoy "reverse articulation." : -)

I taught in a biotechnology program at Seattle Central Community College for several years and 30-50% of our students already had bachelor's degrees. This is true for other community college biotech programs, too (e.g. Shoreline CC, Austin CC, City College of San Fransciso, and more).

I can also confirm that UW does offer courses for freshmen and sophomores.
Ummm... the community college I go to has a football stadium. A little one, but it has Astroturf and all that.

As to the comment about community colleges not just serving undergraduates-- mine doesn't. There are a lot of people like me, who have degrees but like to take courses; there are people (degreed or not) taking career-enhancing courses like Introduction to Adobe Photoshop; and there are high school kids getting a headstart on college classes. It's a wonderful mix and I love it, certainly not just a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds.
Isn't this the author who complained of getting too much flatware & china at her wedding to fit in her kitchen? Poor thing. has a great review of this book . . . but they didn't mention the cc angle. Yikes.

(slate review is )
Having just retired from 25+ years in a very rural, teensy community college, I think we should strap Tamara in for a semester at a few diverse cc's...ours was THE pipeline for anyone not: a)joining the service; b)joining the incarceration sytem; c)ditto fastfood joints, etc, d)splitting for a 'big city' where unemployment was also rampant...

Many more hoped to transfer than actually did, mostly for financial reasons. About a decade ago, we figured out it would easily take $1,000 in money and a ton of self-esteem to get our folks beyond the county.

But transfer ed, voc ed, art and music and drama and cross-cultural opportunites did abound...and our trasnfers did "as well or bettre than" 4-year uni. students consistently, too...

Cheers, ~Kathi
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