Wednesday, April 25, 2007



The NY Times had a section on Sunday dealing with community colleges. Much of it was fairly predictable stuff: returning students struggling to get vocational degrees, underprepared students struggling to get through remediation, that sort of thing.

But there was a nifty statistic buried in one of the articles. (I'm way too tired to dig out the link.) Apparently, over the last decade or so, the average age of students at cc's nationally has been dropping. (That has been true at my cc as well, but it's nice to get confirmation that the trend isn't just local.) This, in contrast to the average student age at four-year public colleges, which (I think) is either steady or climbing.

We're starting to get more of the traditional-age students who could have chosen to go elsewhere. This is almost certainly a function of economics. Since the first two years of most programs are devoted mostly to (transferable) general education requirements anyway, why not get those credits at dramatically lower cost?

One result of that shift is that some cc's that have historically focused exclusively or very strongly on vocational education are starting to ramp up their transfer programs. We're in the weird position of shrinking some workforce development stuff to make room for arts and sciences.

This strikes me as a welcome development on several levels.

From a public service perspective, obviously, it's great to be able to help a generation of students cope with (by partially dodging) dramatic tuition increases at four-year schools. A little competition isn't always a bad thing.

We don't really interfere with the 'sorting' function of admissions, since cc grads who transfer do just as well academically (if not better than) as 'native' four-year students. If anything, we provide a second level of sorting, one based on performance more than 'potential.'

We may offset some of the losses in faculty hiring at the four-year schools.

And to the extent that we improve our game in the traditional disciplines, we may overcome some of the stigma that still attaches to this sector. That can only help the students who actually can't afford to go elsewhere.

The truth of this hit me earlier this week, when I realized that I was making an argument for another full-time philosophy hire, and doing it almost entirely on financial grounds. Since philosophy is a chalk-and-talk discipline, and the classes usually run in the twenties or low thirties, it's a profit center. As opposed to the more vocational fields, which have more cyclical demand, smaller classes, more competition for instructors, and higher equipment costs. Normally, classical disciplines are seen as victims of bottom-line thinking. We may need to rethink that mental shortcut.

As the midtier four-year colleges are hollowing themselves out and becoming more like cc's, it may be that some cc's are beefing up academically and becoming more like four-year colleges. (In some states, cc's have actually started offering four-year degrees. If any readers are in one of those states and can speak to how well that works, please do so in the comments. I'm especially fuzzy on how it impacts faculty workloads, in terms of research expectations.)

I usually agree with Brad DeLong's lament -- “why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?” -- so it was nice to see something both accurate and thought-provoking in the Times. Hope springs eternal.

In my state, we are about 15 years ahead of this curve... with our state-wide transfer agreement, they also merged the "community colleges" with the "technical colleges"... in our case, the two were across the street from one another.

As a philosopher, I love the fact that you are going to hire another one of us!! At my CC we have some philosophy courses at 50 students and a bunch more at 40. They fill because they satisfy state transfer goals.
Dean Dad & Others:

DD said: "We don't really interfere with the 'sorting' function of admissions, since cc grads who transfer do just as well academically (if not better than) as 'native' four-year students. If anything, we provide a second level of sorting, one based on performance more than 'potential.' "

One area of weakness in transfer students is the natural sciences. In my day job at a traditional, 4-year university, I deal with transfers headed to medical school and the other health professions.

By way of tradition I have learned that there is an unspoken bias by medical schools toward, or in favor of, science classes taken at 4-year schools. I thought this a myth until I heard biology faculty complaining about students taking intro. bio courses elsewhere. Those students performed poorly in "next step" courses (cell bio., genetics, etc.) in that department. I assume this "intro problem" holds for chemistry and physics as well.

I guess what this means is that there is a dramatic drop-off in hard sciences instruction between 2 and 4-year schools? I'd love to see some "objective," comparative study on teaching in these subject areas. Otherwise, those 2-year students who are headed to 4-year schools with hopes for the health professions might as well skip step one.

Am I way off base here? Does my experience correlate with others? - TL
In this state, the vast majority of bachelor's degrees granted by a CC are in secondary ed. There are a few that offer 4-yr business degrees, I think.

The quality of those programs at a CC depend much more on the individual instructor than on the college as a whole. YMMV.

Our institutional research people are incapable of getting actual data on this subject, but anecdotal evidence says my students are better prepared: one class had a 100% pass rate on a 1st-month physics/math exam, while only 20% of the native students passed it on the first try.

Our organic faculty (plural) have a bigger battle. The place they send their students suffers under the illusion that a person who once taught their classes suddenly got worse when they moved here.

I assume your bio department has data supporting their observation. It is very easy for selection bias to creep in if you don't study a complete sample.

And it can go the other way. I have never had a person who took their math at a particular school manage to pass my class. Social promotion is found everywhere.
I'm going to have to look up that link, it sounds interesting. I'll be starting as full-time faculty at a CC in September, after teaching grad students as an adjunct at a private university for five years. But I did a lot of investigating before applying, and a large percentage of this CC's students transfer to some serious universities, like NYU. There must be something good going on at this CC.
I am an organic chemistry faculty member at an R1 university and am also a member of the graduate admissions committee. There is no doubt that students who take their intro organic at a CC are at a disadvantage for graduate admissions. This is partiularly true for students who take organic at a CC in the summer and at a different institution than their usual college; this is just seen as trying to take an easier version of the course (also common among some pre-meds). These students need to have stronger records in later coursework, and often a greater number of advanced courses, to provide us with confidence of a good likelihood of success in the coursework they will complete here.

Organic can be taught in a number of ways, but only "mechanism-based approaches," which provide and apply the fundamental logic of molecular reactivity, are seen as relevant training for someone going into graduate school. Students who are not taught mechanism-based approaches in undergraduate organic tend to struggle through graduate organic, and often don't make it through the program. In admissions, we know that certain colleges and universities tend to appropriately prepare their students for the logic of organic chemistry (based on success of their students when they arrive here). Students from anywhere else (including many traditional colleges) are treated skeptically.

Finally, I will note that this isn't just a CC thing. Our summer organic classes are taught, in a non-mechanism based way, by an adjunct faculty (MS only); these students are similarly ill-prepared for either second-semester organic from a full-time faculty member or for advanced coursework in organic chemistry.
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