Monday, May 08, 2006


A Small, But Positive, Change

According to IHE, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and UVA are both expanding their recruitment of community college graduates. While the local cc’s are presumably elated, the predictable hand-wringing about watering-down has already started.

I could gloat, but honestly compels me to admit that this story is much less earth-shattering than it looks at first blush. It’s a positive development, but it’s hardly ‘man bites dog.’

The positives here are twofold: very talented cc grads will get the shot they deserve, and data trumped mystique in executive decisionmaking. I don’t see a downside to either of those.

The data that both universities looked at indicated that cc grads who transfer in graduate at the same rates (sometimes slightly higher) than ‘native’ students. Nothing succeeds like success, so the argument for gatekeeping looks a bit silly when the data contradicts it. (My cc did a similar study in reverse, and found that our grads who transfer actually outperform ‘native’ students at the public four-year colleges in our state.)

Rather than asking whether students who can be just as successful should have the same chance, which strikes me as a no-brainer, the right question is why students who spent their freshman and sophomore years at flagship state universities are no more successful than local cc grads.

I’ll divide the answer into two parts: why the flagship state students aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and why cc grads are no worse than their flagship state counterparts.

First, the flagship state students. Why are they less successful than we might expect, given the fairly intense competition to get in?

Let’s see – 18 and 19 year olds, first time away from home, fresh out of high school, huge anonymous classes, lots of teaching assistants and/or adjuncts, the travails of dorm living, fulfilling distribution requirements with courses they really don’t want to take, no clue what they want to do when they grow up and very little serious academic or career advisement to be had. Nope, no clue.

Then, the cc grads. Why are they just as good, if they weren’t pre-screened by a selective Admissions office?

The key word is “grads.” Students who graduate with an associate’s degree are, pretty much by definition, survivors. Yes, cc’s generally have much higher attrition rates than selective colleges. Some of that reflects open-door admissions; some of it reflects different goals the students have; some the more-challenging life circumstances that cc students often face, which is why they chose a cc in the first place. Grads, though, are the ones that didn’t drop out. They’re the ones who were able, for whatever reason, to get their stuff together and keep it together long enough to complete a degree program.

The grads who apply to transfer tend to be the best of the already-smallish bunch that graduates at all. These are often the kids who had the talent and drive to go elsewhere, but whose family circumstances (whether financial or otherwise) made that impractical. In some cases, they’re just late bloomers; in others, they may have had to work through some personal issues before they could focus seriously on their studies. The key point is that these students proved, over two or more years at a cc, that they were capable of performing academically at a high level.

In other words, the best cc students match up pretty well with the average flagship state students. This seems about right to me. Our average student may be weaker, but our transferring grads are better than our average. Since most student attrition happens in the first year of college, those who graduate from a cc have already made it through the most dangerous year. In effect, we offer a second sift through the applicant pile, highlighting a few hidden gems who were missed the first time. Nothing wrong with that.

Hooray that UVA and UWM based a decision on reality, rather than snob appeal. But I don’t foresee the floodgates opening. This is a wise move that will probably have a positive, though notably small, impact. The cohort for whom it’s relevant is smaller than partisans on either side of the issue seem to imagine.

In our state we have a set of established transfer classes and a gauranteed admission program to the Univeristy.

One of our administrators told me about his work establishing the system -- the concern was that the courses taught at the community college level weren't as demanding as those taught to freshmen at the University. The other question was about the qualifications of the instructors at the CCs vs. the University.

Our administrator (who wasn't "ours" at the time.. but is now) did some research and then came up with a list of courses taught by the SAME people at the CC and the University. He was also able to get some sample syllabi for each. When presented with the evidence that the same instructors were "qualified" according to the University to be adjuncts, but "unqualified" while at the CCs, the argument destroyed itself.

Of course, as part of the final agreement the teacher's unions had to agree to a set of minimum qualifications that were similar to the University (i.e. an MA in fields where it is applicable).

We've done some studies that found that our transfers (not necessarily graduates) did substantially better than the University's native students. We also found that they did better than transfers from other CCs... : ).
That's not that big of a strategic shift for UW-Madison, if any. Though there are other four-year degree-granting schools in the UW system, the Madison campus accepts a lot of transfers from the branch campuses as well as from four-year "technical colleges" (which are akin to community colleges).

This "shift" sounds more like a greater articulation of present practice.
You speak of teaching assistants and adjunct as if they're a bad thing to the student. While it speaks of larger issues within flagship universities, I can attest that at Super-Large Midwestern U, the TAs and Grad-student adjuncts typically know the students (and the material) much better than the prof.

The students typically rate the TAs and other grad-student adjuncts higher than the professors, who at times frankly could care less if the students even existed.

Your overall point is well-taken, but I think you give short shrift to the TAs and adjuncts who, in my experience at Super-Large Midwestern U, work extremely hard to get to know the students. Your post has the vibe as if to say, "only TAs and adjuncts" which assumes quite a bit.
Anon -- this topic comes up a lot, since I'm critical of the shift to all-adjunct, all-the-time teaching. A fair number of the t.a.'s on a flagship campus at any given time are in their first or second year of teaching, so even if they care a great deal and have the knack, they'll make rookie mistakes. (I certainly did in my first year as a t.a.) The issue with adjuncts is more the difficulty of building the continuing mentoring relationship with people who may or may not be around much, or may or may not even come back the following semester.

Certainly, t.a.'s and adjuncts can be gifted teachers; regular readers know that I've been both myself. I just think that missing the opportunity to form bonds with experienced teachers who are going to stick around is a real loss.
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Glad you posted this, DD. I teach English comp part-time at "Small Bama Community College" (a two-year institution) and about 45% of my students will eventually go on to colleges such as Auburn University, or the Univ. of Alabama. (No Alabama jokes--although I know you're tempted.) Reading this maks me feel even better about trying to get my SBCC students' writing up to four-year-college level before they leave my classes. Thanks for making the point that it'll only be the very best of the best CC students who get into UVA and UWM.
Speaking as a Badger alum (and current adjunct), I have a couple three points to make.

First, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not called "UWM." That would be the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The one in Madison is either called the "UW-Madison," or more simply "The UW," as if there were no other.

Second, with all respect to app crit's comment, there has long been a major gap between the theory of credit acceptance from other schools (or other UW campuses) and the actual practice. I know of plenty of students who had credits from technical colleges or "center" campuses rejected or reduced with no explanation, or been told "no, you can't take French at UW Whitewater--you have to go to UW Parkside," when both classes are taught by graduates from, yes, the UW-Madison. Time will tell whether the "new" UW-Madison policy closes the gap between theory and practice, or merely indicates an awareness of that gap.

Third, the success of transfer students relative to native students is no big surprise to me. Clearly, anyone who would go through the hassle of moving from school to school, particularly given the uncertainty of credit transfer, is motivated in a way that many native freshmen and sophomores are not. The UW-Madison, as the name "The UW" suggests, draws a lot of students who have no real interest in a college degree, but whose parents push them into it, and further insist on the prestige they think comes with a degree from the flagship campus. And, in the end, many of those students end up in detox, or faking their own abduction, or joining the Moonies, or even voting Republican.
I think you've hit the nail right on the head with your thoughts about community college grads. I actually dropped out of high school, drifted a bit, got married and pregnant by 21. I worked low-level jobs for a few years while taking community college classes and trying to figure out how on earth I could go to college as my marriage dissolved. I ended up transferring my cc credits to UVa, finishing a bachelors and masters in 4 years. Five years later I was back at UVa as an assistant prof with a PhD from another institution. My experience at the CC was that my classmates were a wide mix of folks, mostly older than the usual college student, taking classes to achieve specific goals. CC was the perfect environment for me to get back into the academic groove while I figured out where and what I'd do. I doubt my story is unusual & was glad to see our Board of Visitors make a good decision on this matter.

Sorry for the experiences of you or your friends at Madison. When I worked there, nothing got in the way from accepting transfer credits from other UW campuses or from the TCs, e.g. MATC.

As long as students fulfilled the 60-credit, 30-credit, and 15-credit rules, there was no problem in most circumstances.

There were issues when a currently enrolled UW student wanted to take summer courses, for example, at other campuses. Without clearance from an advisor first, they may not be accepted (as per above rules). That was within the discretion of specific departments or program areas.

UW is indeed a slightly more isolated flagship campus than what other states' flagship schools are (such as the other UW, or UDub), but clearly more connected than some (such as Berkeley).
Frankly my experience in science and engineering flatly contradicts your assumptions. Without serious pre-enrollment preparation community college students die on transfer. It is very similar to expecting a team to win on the road.

First of all the "native" competition has two years of experience which means that

-those who were going to flunk out or change majors have already done so. The students who stay as majors are the strongest students. Gateway courses are already out of the way. Any imagined advantage of the cc students from graduating with an AA is strictly imaginary.

-the survivors have formed study groups and personal networks needed to survive and prosper

-they know the faculty, whose classes to take and whose to avoid

-the faculty knows them, and the best students are already doing undergraduate research

-their courses are aligned with the college's and department's required courses.

To give community college transfer students a fighting chance serious personal mentoring is needed, and most often not available.

I have taken part in such a program, and the payoff to the community college students was large and obvious. Throw them into the ocean and they drown.
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