Tuesday, May 15, 2007



A few years ago, my state established a merit scholarship program. High-achieving high school grads are eligible for substantial scholarships to attend their local cc's for two years. The state sees it as a way to increase the capacity of the state higher ed system without the cost of building.

We advertise the program on our website. We advertise it at open houses, in newspapers, on public access tv, and to the local guidance counselors. We host every guidance counselor in the area at least once a year, and make certain that they know all the ins and outs of the program.

Yesterday I attended a special event we host for some local high school teachers. When we mentioned the program, you could see the blank stares. As we outlined it, you could hear gasps. They had never heard of it.

I did some asking around. According to the folks in Admissions, who have been fighting this battle for some time, the guidance counselors have strict orders from their superintendents not to mention the program to their students, for fear that the students will use it.

We wouldn't want that...

Although the scholarship program is statewide, superintendents are essentially local. To a local K-12 superintendent, the needs of the state higher ed system are fairly abstract, but the need to keep local property values up through a high profile high school is concrete. And one of the primary statistics used to differentiate one public school district from another is the percentage of graduates it sends to four-year colleges and universities. No distinctions are made within that group, so the University of Chicago and Struggling State College count the same. But cc's get their own category, and too high a percentage in that category drags down a public school's ranking.

The shame of it, of course, is that some of the students who would have fit the program never hear of it and get pushed to four-year colleges away from home, where they promptly crash and burn, then come back to us in January with a palpable sense of failure. (These students are academically capable, but often just not ready to leave home yet.) From a superintendent's perspective, though, that's invisible. His job is done when the graduate shows up in September at St. Whomever's or Nothing Special State. If that same student comes back to us in January, that's not the high school's problem. But if that student started here in the first place, then the high school might drop a notch in the rankings, and no good can come of that.

So we have the state trying to use cc's as feeders, and local districts doing everything in their power to stop that from happening. Meanwhile, the cc's struggle for enrollment, and guidance counselors actually hide information from students they know it could help, so they won't get fired.

Your tax dollars at work!

Actually, that's not completely true. The 'rankings' of high schools are not taxpayer funded. (To the extent that taxpayers fund rankings, they're through standardized tests. Standardized tests have other flaws, but at least they don't punish cc's for existing.) The (property) market-driven need for invidious distinctions leads private parties to generate rankings of their own. That's fine, and they're certainly within their rights to do so, but the outsize weight given to very superficial measures is defeating a program that actually makes sense.

My proposed measure: don't track where students start. Track where they finish. How many graduates have, say, B.A.'s within five years? How many get into medical school? The reality of the situation is that admissions standards across the 'four-year' sector vary so widely that the criterion is meaningless. (This measure might also shift focus somewhat from creating slots for kids to be 'recording secretary of the Spanish club' to actually preparing kids academically for college. This strikes me as a good thing.) It's not at all clear to me that the kid who spends a year at Struggling State only to drink his way out reflects a better high school experience than the kid who starts at a cc, transfers to a four-year school, graduates, and makes his way in the world. But as far as the local press is concerned, the first suggests a strong high school, and the second a weak one. In this case, the market is wrong.

So we muddle along, one foot planted firmly on the accelerator, the other on the brake. The guidance counselors know and can't tell; the teachers have no idea; the legislature can't figure out why the program isn't gaining traction; and my numbers aren't pretty. There's gotta be a better way.

This is pretty standard; several of my gifted colleagues were deliberately steered away from opportunities which might have severed them from their small and/or inadequately-prepared schools, so that they could continue to provide high test scores.

The problem isn't the incentives, though they are there. The problem is the lack of basic decency displayed by the principals in question -- for the sake of a couple percentage points on a statistic for a year or two, they decided to burn a kid's potential.

Your problem isn't the numbers. Your problem is the folks who view even the tiniest improvement in the numbers as more important than doing their damn jobs. You can't fix mean and stupid by changing metrics; they'll just find mean and stupid ways to meet the new metrics.
So, how many of your students actually go on to graduate from 4-year colleges. My understanding is that the record is pretty abysmal. I teach at a major semi-state university that's trying to recruit cc graduates in part as a way of diversifying the undergrad population, and my understanding is that the current record of eventual graduation is shockingly bad.

So it's not obvious on the face of it that the guidance counselors are giving bad advice.

You did articulate the problem quite well and Kimmitt agrees...."tell me the rules and I'll play the game." The Superintendents are playing the game to their benefit, so you need to play the game to your benefit.

Since the K-12s are not your allies in this skirmish, you are smart to go elsewhere to find friends. It is really Marketing 101: either push the product through via the middlemen(which isn't working) or pull the product through by going straight to the customer.

My CC starts recruiting in the middle grades (6-8) because that is where the counselors are working with kids on their HS track. They tell a child not only which classes lead them through to a HS diploma, but where they are expected to go from there....University, CC, Military or work. We begin early helping the kids understand what is needed for particular jobs. The counselors like having some help and we get to push our own programs. By doing this, the HS principals are happy because their incoming freshman class is more focused -- well, as focused as hormone-crazed 14-15 year olds can be! ;-)

We also offer a ton of dual enrollment courses. It is not atypical for a student to graduate HS with at least one full semester's worth of credit to bring to us or transfer to a university (one kid left HS with 64 credits through dual enrollment and entered Flagship U as a Junior). Parents love this "scholarship" because their little darlings are getting college-level courses for the price of a book.
...that first sentence should have ended with a question mark...

And it wasn't entirely a rhetorical question -- this may be a local problem I'm referring to.
To anonymous....In North Carolina, CC students who transfer to one of the 16 state unis out perform the native students using GPA as the measure. How many of those students graduate is not tracked as far as I know, but I can point to data that show we are doing a better job of preparing students for their upper-division courses than the 4 years. We like to think its because we use Masters level, experienced instructors rather than TAs.

Perhaps you could elucidate how you came to "your understanding" about cc grad rates, other than "I heard" and "that's my understanding."
This seems like one of those cases where measuring one factor leads to poor practices as far as the big picture. The same sort of thing seems to happen with college rankings.

Broadly, we need to rethink how we're measuring "performance" in education, but that seems really difficult when the business models get applied inappropriately, no?
I wonder about the actual gathering of the metrics (regardless of whether the students are tracked at the beginning or end of their college experience). My guess is that the superintendent actually uses a sort of exit interview to pulse the "intended" plans of graduating seniors. That is, not only are the metrics flawed (not tracking successful college graduation rates), but they are probably not even gathered in a coherent manner.

Why? Someone has to do the counting. Is the administrators doing the tracking of every student? "Hi, yes, John from the local High School. Can you tell me if Mary Sue went to Big U? No, she decided cosmetology was more to her liking? Thank you."

Point is, part of the whole discussion will be based on "data" gathered too early in the process to be relevant.

No on ever called me from my old school district to see how I turned out. I don't know of anyone who has had that.
Does the state DoE have addresses for all the HS students? You should be able to do a mass mailing to their home address.
direct mail, PSEOs (high school students taking CC classes) and ads over the pumps at the gas stations. at least the kids will be asking the counselors questions and I assume they're allowed to answer a direct question.

our cc also did a billboard campaign that compared the cost of a single class at the cc, the state u and a private college.

(anon since can't seem to get past blogger login anymore)
What a travesty. DD, your proposal for tracking where students finish is a good one. It might involve students being given a universal student number by the federal DOE, state DOE, or your regional accrediting agency. - TL
DD - Your first step should be to tell your legislator (it is usually not lobbying if you talk only to your legislator) this fact, and get your college's lobbyist to tell the rest. And you now know that you should talk directly to parents and teachers, leaving out the K-12 middlemen.

On the metrics:
Our state has a system that longitudinally tracks every student (by SSN) from K to PhD. The result is dense beyond belief, since few kids in any given kindergarten get a PhD and there is lots of movement in and out of schools. My understanding of NCLB is that there will be more of this.

The question of performance after transfer is tricky. Who are you comparing to? Our CC transfers do not do as well as students who started at a university *and* made it to the junior year. They do better than the ones at a Uni who discovered that a 1200 SAT does not compensate for being drunk every day.

Lots of students do not make it past their freshman year at a Uni, and lots more drop out of a CC after their first year. Quite a few who drop out of a Uni find their legs at a CC and become a success. You can get almost any result you want if you choose your numerator and denominator carefully.
It's irrelevant in this context to compare the average four year college student to the average community college student. We're talking about high-achieving high school students; if they go to community college, they won't be average community college students.

By the way, here is a report about degree completion rates and transfer rates in California community colleges. It says "Of the 60 percent [of California community college students] who are seeking a degree or certificate, only about one-fourth succeed in
transfering to a university and/or earning an associate’s degree or a certificate within six years." I don't know whether completion rates are similar in other states.

-- Cardinal Fang
I want to add that that the Shulock report has gotten a great deal of criticism for some of its conclusions--including, if I remember correctly, that it didn't include students who left the CC "transfer ready" but for whatever reason didn't actually transfer in its numbers. The data can (with justification) be sliced in many different ways, and this report takes the least flattering.
I do feel some sympathy for the local school administrators. It's a lot easier to know what students do immediately out of high school than it is to know what happens to them 4, or 5, or 6 years down the road. (Where I am, on the other hand, local school administrators would be happy to publicize any increase in post-HS-school attendance).

My institution has a similar problem. We are evaluated, in part, on our 6-year graduation rate. However, a student who transfers out and graduates elsewhere is counted as a non-graduate. Why? Because we don't know. Even if that student transfers from my regional campus to the "flagship" campus and graduates, for us, that student is a failure.

Talk about giving people the wrong incentives.
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