Friday, October 05, 2007


Taking Their Money

One of the policies my cc works under is a rule about “ability to benefit.” Basically, it means that we can only admit students who have demonstrated the ability to benefit from college-level instruction. We usually interpret that to mean a high school diploma or GED, plus a minimal level of performance on placement tests (if they haven't already placed out with high SAT/ACT scores).

We use the same logic in setting a limit on the number of times a student can repeat a class. Anybody can fail anything once for just about any reason. Even twice, if life intervenes. But there comes a point – hard to pinpoint, but it exists – at which we're no longer really offering second (or third, or fourth) chances; we're just taking their money.

(Of course, as a public institution, our costs are partially covered by the taxpayers. So we're also taking the taxpayers' money.)

Nobody wants to be the one to tell an earnest, hardworking, but horribly underequipped student that it's time to find another path. (And yes, some of the lowest achievers are honestly trying.) Part of the mission of a community college is to be open to everybody. We enforce rigor once they're in, rather than at the point of admission. I've explained it to students (and parents) as the difference between an at-bat and a home run. We guarantee you some at-bats. If you strike out repeatedly, that's on you.

In practice, of course, many high school grads come to us without college-level skills. (One of my recurring fantasies involves high schools that actually produce literate, numerate graduates across the board. Oh, happy land!) We offer remedial courses to give the students a shot at catching up, and many of them do. We've actually had valedictorians who started out in remedial classes. (Remedial classes don't count towards graduation, so the valedictorians who started out remedial had to complete remediation and then complete the entire regular degree program. It's a tough row to hoe, and I tip my cap to those who do it well.)

But the heartbreaker – the issue that comes back every single semester – is the student who fails the remedial class for the third (or fourth, or fifth) time, despite doing all the work. These students exist, and they point to a basic contradiction at the heart of our mission. Community colleges are open to everybody, but college isn't for everybody. Telling a student to give up and go home goes against every instinct we have, but there's such a thing as false hope. There comes a point at which the student has demonstrated, repeatedly, an inability to benefit.

I don't think that's an argument against community colleges. My argument for open admissions is that there's no foolproof way of distinguishing upfront the 'doomed' from the 'late bloomers.' So we give everybody the benefit of the doubt, on the theory that it's worth tolerating some futility in order to give the late bloomers a chance to succeed. And enough late bloomers do succeed that I can say that with a clear conscience. I don't want to be in a world in which folks who haven't found their groove by 18 are shut out of education for the rest of their lives. The waste of talent would be unconscionable.

(I've also seen adults who – by their own admission -- spent their late teens and twenties in druggy hazes, bounced around the fringes of the economy, then saw the light in adulthood, and came back to college On A Mission. They're hard not to root for. They're great to have in class, since they discipline the other students for you. When I see them hug their kids at graduation, I give thanks that I've never had to work that hard.)

But we're still stuck with the kid who can't write a paragraph after several cracks at remedial English.

There was a time when you could tell that kid to get a job on the assembly line, join the union, and that would be that. Or he could join the military and find his way there. Now, the first isn't available, and the second is an increasingly rough sell. And you just don't make much working between RIFs at Circuit City.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm looking for practical answers. Have you seen productive options for the students who just can't pass remediation, and who don't have the family connections to compensate?

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