Thursday, October 04, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Are Your Alums Good Enough to Teach for You?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a sophomore at a snooty-but-trying-not-to-be Private Liberal Arts
College who has recently discovered your blog and is tearing through
the archives. I'm afraid I'm one of the folks from the kind of town
(bedroom community where all the parents have grad degrees) where
people only go to CCs to get ahead in high school, for summer credit,
or because they didn't get in anywhere else. After reading, however,
I'm starting to understand the idea of getting cheap Gen-Ed credit and
then transferring.

I'm wondering, however, how much this is an ideal than common
practice. Did any of the faculty at your school, for instance, start
their higher ed at a CC?

I like questions that get at what William James called the "cash value" of an abstraction. Okay, you say your cc does a good job? Does it do a good enough job that you'd hire your own grads to teach?


Several of our faculty are also alums here. (Interestingly, all but one of the names I can rattle off are women.) They started here, transferred to four-year colleges, then went on for graduate work. The fact that they came back here strikes me as a vote of confidence. I've also noticed a significant number of "faculty brats" among the students. As a parent, I know I wouldn't send my kid to a school in which I lacked confidence.

One of the benefits of hiring alums is that they often have a very good sense of where the students are coming from. One of my favorite people here actually attended here in her thirties before moving on and eventually finding her way back. She has emerged as a wonderful resource for returning adult students, since she has been one herself. (She once explained to me that adult students like to sit in the front row so they don't have to see all the young faces behind them. I hadn't noticed that until she pointed it out.)

More broadly, transfer from here to a four-year school is quite common. At my cc, the generic 'transfer major' is the single highest-enrollment major. (Admittedly, this isn't true at all cc's. Some of them are much more vocationally oriented than we are.) The local four-year colleges have consistently found that our graduates actually graduate at higher rates, and with higher GPA's, than their 'native' students. I suspect that partly reflects pre-sorting (our weakest students don't even make it to graduation, so the four-year schools never see them) and partly reflects the fact that we put resources into Intro courses and they don't.

Interestingly, the average age of our students is dropping, and we're getting more full-time (and fewer part-time) students than in the past. The working-adult-at-night group is shrinking, and the full-time-just-out-of-high-school group is growing. We spend a lot of time trying to crack the nut of shrinking adult enrollment, but I think the growing traditional-student enrollment is largely a function of cost. As the tuition rates at the four-years have risen beyond reason, and the success rates of our grads becomes better known, the argument for saving some money by coming here first becomes more compelling.

It's not for everybody. We don't have dorms, or football, or some of the trappings of a residential college. Most of the students live at home. Growing up in Northern Town, one of my priorities, upon graduating high school, was to get the hell out of Northern Town. I desperately wanted the dorm experience (as I imagined it), and the stamp of approval of a name brand college. But if the choice isn't between, say, Swarthmore and a cc, but between Nothing Special State and a cc, I wouldn't rule out the cc without taking a serious look first.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the difference between students who are invested in what I'd call "the college experience" and those students for whom the decision is about the college education. That said, I don't think the choice needs to be as dramatic as the one that you describe between, say, a Swarthmore and a CC. I chose a Nothing Special State over a CC because I wanted to live in a dorm and I wanted to go to football games and I wanted to get out of my parents' house. Now, I didn't choose the Nothing Special State down the road from the CC (where I'd have had to live at home), but I also didn't choose the Elite University down nor did I choose the SLAC, both also down the road (where I still would have been living at home, and where I wouldn't have gotten "the college experience"). I suppose what I'm saying is that a CC - no matter how great - still doesn't give and really can't give what I was looking for and what I found at Mediocre U. That's not to knock SLACs, but it is to say that they just aren't right for all students, no matter how economical they are and no matter how much sense they might make on paper.

(Incidentally, one of the reasons that having the "real" college experience was so important to me was because I was in the first gen. of my family to go to college. I felt like ending up at a CC would pretty much guarantee me dropping out and ending up in some crappy job. I'm not saying that is true at all - I'm just saying that a lot of times people assume that 1st Geners would be more likely to give a CC a chance, and I'd say that that's just not true in all cases.)
er, I meant "Elite University nor did I..."

This is what I get for commenting before I've finished my first cup of coffee :)
Re hiring faculty that first attended a CC (interesting hypothetical)--I'd be inclined to think that a broader range of educational experience would be a plus when you are on the job market. Mitigates any elite-school backlash at mid/lower teaching universities, and brings the elite schools some needed awareness of their sheltered world.

Two years at a CC could cut into time spent building relationships with the undergrad professors who help you get into grad school, but that's so contingent on other things anyhow, could easily be worth the tradeoff.
My question would be about your kids -- do your faculty send their kids to the CC? Very few of ours do, and if they do, it's usually for the high school credits. So even though it would be free for my kids, it's not really on their radar.

Maybe it's what Dr. Crazy said, though, that the kids really do want to get away from home :-)
I applaud any cc that hires its alums. I was an adjunct at my alma mater, and my students came to me with all sorts of issues because I knew my way around. I could help them figure out what questions to ask, who to talk to, etc. Because we've been in their seats, (sometimes literally) we know how to help them succeed.
I didn't start at a CC, but one saved my butt after I flunked out of Flagship State the first time. So now I teach at a CC, but I can't seem to climb out of adjunct hell.

I really like dance's comment about--let's term it "experiential diversity." That is, one would think that a broader range of experience, having been to various kinds of higher-ed institutions, would be a plus on the market, especially for CC jobs; but Dean Dad's enlightened view seems also to be a minority view, sadly.

Am I wrong about that?
My first year or so of college was at the cc where I now, almost 20 years later, teach. I attended the cc not for philosophical reasons but for financial ones and I think I understand the student body at my school well. Of course I then transfer to a 4 year state school and was succesful enough to get into a good grad school where I also did well.

I doubt my having taken English 101 and Western Civ at my cc got me the job, but I don't think it the school where I teach most students are very local, minority students who may not have done well in HS (or even graduated--many have GEDs) or are older returning students. I am proud to have been one of them and used my time at the school to prepare me for a traditional university education and I can see a number of my students doing the same: I would love to work alongside some of them in the years to come!
I think folks who attended a CC and then went on to do graduate work are likely to have a really good sense of how different educational institutions can be; I think that serves them, their students, and their community very well.

I think folks who've only been to R1s or Ivy type schools are likely to have a more limited understanding. I'd be more concerned about an elite SLAC hiring an alum who'd only known that school and, say, a private grad school.

I learned tons at a CC, and not only about what I was supposed to be learning in the classroom. I think on my year+ there as a huge benefit to my life education, far more of a benefit than my colleagues probably realize.
At the college I teach at, they love hiring alums simply because they are more likely to stay (this is a small, *very* rural, low-paying state school). Those who have been here better understand what they are getting into.

This question mirrors the question many have with distance learning. Would [some distance learning college] actually hire people who got their degree through [distance learning]? The answer to that is it depends on the quality of the distance learning program. Some are great and some, well, not so much. The experience of going through the process is useful, but the student still has to learn the content area in depth.

Not all online programs are created equal and I I know not all community colleges are created equal either. I've taken classes at both the "equivalent (or better) than the first two years of an R1 school" CCs and the "3rd year of junior high" variety. In the latter case, the official joke was "5th year of high school", but the smart ones recognized that the local CC was *easier* than our high school, at least if you took the good teachers.
We have a significant number of alums on our faculty, even one on our Board of Trustees.

Your comment about female faculty was interesting, because one of our best calculus instructors started her math career here as an older returning student. It was at this CC that she discovered she could do math ... and she has returned that favor to several of her students. I think she chooses to teach night classes because of her history.

I attended a CC while in HS, so that does not count. However, because my CC class was in the evening, made up mostly of auto workers who wanted to become engineers, it gave me a perspective on college (and the CC student body) that was different from what I gained from my age-group peers in the "college experience" I had at Enormous State.

PS - One of my students this semester is the son of one of our top administrators.
I like to sit in the front row because that way I can hear the prof. It has nothing to do with seeing young faces.
One of the reasons I didn't attend a CC and transfer (although many people pointed it out as a potential option) was, indeed, the experience part. Not just the rebellion of 'oh, I want out of my parents' house,' but the 'managing your own time, making decisions on your own, dealing with your own transportation' thing. I didn't have a license (didn't get one until I got back from college and got a job an hour and a half away from my (parents') house), so my parents had always taken me where I needed to go, our house was very small, so I was used to having my family literally and metaphorically involved in pretty much everything I did. Which was nice, and I liked it a lot, but wasn't exactly helping me learn to be independent. Going to the local CC would have made getting an apartment a bit absurd, as my grandparents both work there and it's about 20 minutes away from my parents' house, and rent rates are through the roof here (I'm paying $1700 a month for our rental right now, and it's just a two bedroom...down the street and around the corner from my parents).

The other reason I didn't do that, though, was streamlining. I've known plenty of people (mostly teachers/after school counselors, but some others) who went to the local CC and never went anywhere. Not because they were failing, but because they were just taking whatever courses appealed to them and not really going about getting a degree. Which, again, isn't totally bad, but wasn't for me, either. All of my relatives pointed this out as a potential problem... one has to be very disciplined when one knows one is going to transfer (or even if one is just looking for the AA), and it's easy to get lost. I didn't want to do that, and I didn't want to risk not being able to transfer (because of credit stuff and what have you).

On the transfer issue, there's also the problem (mostly with SLACs, though I'd imagine there are some with others as well) of mandatory curricula. We have some classes that simply do not have equivalents elsewhere, and which are central to the formation of one's identity as a SLAC-ie. Which is a fancy way of saying 'your GEs are nice, and we'll accept you, but you still have to take our classes.' That same attitude applies to a lot of intro clases, particularly, at mine, Math 111. Unless you had absurdly high (and demonstrable) math skills, you had to take it, transfer or no, and even if you could demonstrate the skill to get out of it, you were ... encouraged ... to take it anyway, because "we do math differently around here."

(Which, to be fair, we did... math started with proving that math could be done, so you wound up proving that addition was possible, then subtraction, and all that other math-philosophy stuff before you dove straight into actually doing things like calculus. Suffice to say that there was no class for non-majors, and I didn't actually take it. I just watched my friends sit through it and winced a lot.)

I think that's both a good and bad thing. While there is definitely a core of 'stuff you should know' running through every course, I've always maintained that disciplines are there to teach you how to think in a certain way. A chemist approaches problems with a certain set of tools (both physical and mathematical), and goes about solving them in a certain way... while a physicist has some of the same tools and some different ones, and some of the same ways of thought but a lot of different ones. Within that there are regional and topical variations, and one of the variations that can be (though isn't always) important is the way this school does things, or this professor. (I'm thinking of things like listening to a Chicago School Sociologist talk as opposed to someone trained elsewhere. There's a definite difference... though I would stress a difference of type, not quality) Transferring can circumvent some of the formation of that kind of identity, and might not lead to the same kinds of thought.

Again, that's not bad if that's what you're going for, but it's not always what people are looking for, either.
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