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?

One idea I've been toying with up here in Westchester is the establishment of a job training center that would provide not only white collar job skills (like word processing, how to work an excel spreadsheet, etc), but that also provides connections to companies that, rather than hiring temps, would be interesting in hiring training program graduates (or even interns).

Let's take that kid who can't pass English even after taking it 3-4 times, and trying really hard. Well, perhaps he's not suited (right now) for college-level writing, but maybe he's well organized, and is friendly and willing to learn. Well that sounds like a great administrative assistant to me. Or at least, a worker that can be taught entry level data input.

Ideally (and I think, with the right development people on your Board, it's totally possible), a center like this would be underwritten by a mix of private donors and the companies themselves (who benefit from knowing that they have a pool of trained labor at their disposal, and don't have to pay firms to search for workers for them), making the program free for students who need to learn the skills.

Additionally, a center like this would provide opportunities for students who work their way through the program to come back and help teach new students. In my experience, sometimes the best teachers are those that had trouble learning certain skills themselves. Generally, they're more patient, and understand frustration in a way that people who've never struggled really can't.

Dean Dad, I've been reading your stuff for a while now, usually lurking with the occasional comment. I don't really blog (although I've thought about it), but I'd love for you to shoot me an email to talk about an idea like this:

Cheers, and keep up the good work!
I used to work for the agency that licensed proprietary postsecondary institutions in my state. I can't count the number of times I saw the students that you are talking about who ended up at these schools. They were sold on the promise of not needing to take English or math. The school would train them with only the skills they needed for the career, not all of the "useless" courses that the community college requires. All in nine months, not the 24 months the CC makes you take. Of course, it was 5 times the cost of the CC, but it's worth it right?

I'm sure you can guess how many of those students didn't make it through the programs at these schools either. Unfortunately, some of the schools didn't have the ethics to tell these students that maybe this isn't a good job fit for them after all. One school that I was investigating shortly before I left were readmitting students 3 or 4 times after they continually showed that they did not have the ability to complete the program. But they were still Pell eligible, so they would let them back in. It was really sad.

I still think about those students and I'm not sure whether I'm more offended as an educator, a taxpayer , or if it was just the fact that there was nothing I could do because our state's laws are not able to prohibit this type of activity.
I think the problem is that college is sold to the public as a panacea, which it is not. Many people will not benefit from a college education. Instead, vocational training would be a good option. However, this is looked down upon by so many in society. High school administrators brag about how many graduates go to college. Vo-Ag students who go into trades become a negative for the high schools.

The other aspect to this is completely beyond the scope of education. Low skilled work and even medium skilled work used to provide a better income. In addition to the manufacturing industry that you cited, meat packers used to pay good wages. I visited one plant over a decade ago where the lowest paid worker on the line earned $20 an hour. However, with the increase use of illegal immigrants, wages have been driven down by the surplus of low skilled labor.

The lack of decent wages due to surplus labor coupled with the negative attitude towards vocational training has created desperation for people to go to college when they do not have the ability to succeed there.
For Robert: OK, but an entry-level data input job is low-paying and tedious, and is probably in the process of being outsourced to India. (That's been the problem with a lot of training programs of this type....they teach the kind of skills that are either no longer needed in the business world, or which are only worth $8 an hour to start.)

Data entry or other low-level clerical work is also a dead-end job for someone who genuinely can't write. Even a low-level aa needs to be able to compose a coherent email.

As Anonymous 6:37 implied, if a student can't pass remedial math or English in four tries, he may be willing to learn, but probably is not able. At least not in a classroom setting.

At that point, I think it's time to encourage the kid to try other avenues. If he has mechanical aptitude, run with that: despite the prevailing cultural attitude, blue-collar work pays better than the cubicle ghetto, and can be very rewarding for someone with the right skills. (I work with, and am related to, a lot of blue-collar guys. Most earn more than I do.)

Otherwise, the student could try unconventional stuff for a few years, in an attempt to figure out what he's good at. A stint in the Peace Corps might show him that he's actually quite good at negotiation or planning, for example. Being a waiter for a year might point toward a career path in the hospitality industry, which can be fun and lucrative for someone with excellent people skills.

Whatever happens, it's important to get the kid out of the habit of running into a brick wall. Eventually, he'll just wind up drifting into a lowest-common-denominator job, unfulfilled and miserable for the rest of his life.
I taught at a two-year career college which would often recruit students with less than acceptable academic skills with promises of a great career. Many of these students would be placed in the remodel English and/or math courses which required at grade of 90 to pass. If a student failed twice, he or she would have to sit out for a year. Many would not return.

The problem that I have with my prior employer is that they would actively recruit student who clearly do not have the academic skills. The admission reps were known to recruit potential students at the local jail! One former admissions rep told me that he was chastened by his boss for telling a potential student that college may not be the best choice for him. There are even students enrolled in the criminal justice program who will be unable to find employment because they have a felony record. No one told these students when they were picking a major that having a record could seriously hamper future employment options.

It is unfair and unethical for any institution to take someone’s money with promises of future success when they know that there is a huge possibility that the student will not make it. Of course, one should not discourage any potent ional student and say “Based on your background, your chance of being successful here are slim to none, and slim just left town.” But, I think in those cases where there is clearly a situation where a person would be better served in another option, being honest, in a respectful way, is the best option.
Can you offer low cost or free screening for learning disabilities? How many of these folks have dyslexia or dysgraphia? Or ADD? How have suffered in a school system that didn't meet their needs and now suffer from low-confidence, anxiety etc.?

I don't know if it is the college's mission and ideally these things would be addressed long before college, but I have to believe that in a significant number of these cases, there is something contributing to the problem that as long as they have normal intelligence, could be addressed.

A shout out to Mel Levine's book A mind at a time and his All kinds of minds institute. Educators at all levels should know about it, get googling!
"Data entry or other low-level clerical work is also a dead-end job for someone who genuinely can't write. Even a low-level aa needs to be able to compose a coherent email."

I have to disagree with this, as I have employed many data entry clerks and file clerks over the years who could not write a complete sentence.

Yes, there's not a great career path, but it's $27,000 a year and benefits in a low cost-of-living city.

I'm accounting as fast as I can
I think a partnership with the local workforce investment board would help these students find meaningful work that might not require the help of college classes. You could also form partnerships with vocational schools to allow them to recruit from this pool - I'm thinking of a partnership between one local college and a construction company which fasttracks students from the school into their aprenticeship program. Watching "The Lost Boys of Sudan" last night I was struck by how confusing or difficult it can be to "work the system" for people from other countries. Appreticeships can be hard to get but can lift people out of WalMart hell.

Enforced breaks are good - we do not allow majors to repeat a course more than twice which means that many parent's dreams of med school for their kids die the first year after enrollment here. But it's a good thing - the students and the parents need to move on.
This discussion brings back a fond memory for me that confounds a couple of assumptions I'm seeing in the discussion.

One student, not a "kid" by any means, attended our branch-office storefront CC a few years ago who was obviously ill-equipped to benefit in the ways we normally measure benefit because she was markedly developmentally disabled. But Penny, I'll call her, was sweet, she was trying hard, enduring frustration willingly and cheerfully, participating in classroom discussion to the best of her ability--all in all, a positive presence. None of us had the heart to flunk her out, and, taxpayer money aside, that was a good thing. She was entitled to be there in the first place, having struggled courageously through the GED.

The other students couldn't help but love her, nor could most of us on the whiteboard side of the desk, and her presence in my classroom was positive in every way except possibly time management.

Answering her questions in a way that did not condescend, but also benefited the rest of the class, was a challenge that taught me more about teaching than anything else I can name.

Penny died soon after that class, from complications of whatever was ailing her in the first place. Her name is on the memorial stone in front of Storefront, and when I see it I feel honored to have been among those helping her to feel like a competent, contributing human being for a few years. She benefited from that, big-time.

Are we above providing that sort of benefit? Is there room in this sort of institution for the other Pennies?
I don't think there are enough vocational post-secondary programs out there and they need to be elevated to the same status at college. There is nothing wrong with being an electrician, a plumber, etc. In fact they charge more for labor, and righfully so sometimes, than doctors. I cringe when I write this due to the war in Iraq, but the military can be a great place to learn a skill or trade and an opportunity to earn money towards college. This really hits home with my field (graphic design) because twenty years ago a person did not need college and an associate's degree was good enough. With the advent of computers it impossible to get a job without college because companies don't do the training anymore. Companies today looking for graphic designers are out of their minds in the amount of software they expect an individual to have proficiency in. A designer today is doing the job of 10 people from 1985.

I have not read too many blogs or articles in general discussing how society has looked down on anything other than a college education, particularly Ivy League. Personally, I am sick and tired of elitism and I think this loss of diversity in terms of jobs and skills is sad.
We have a very good program for assisting students with learning disabilities. I don't know how they get tested, but I do know that faculty are the first line for getting kids directed towards it.

We are quite proud of our job placement rate out of our AS programs. It is well over 90%, and the one in graphic design (like the one for CAD) produces graduates who are in very high demand locally compared to graduates of other programs (including a 4-year for-profit college) in graphics and graphic design. I think they take one english class, but most of the 60 hours are on top end hardware and software directed at job specific skills. Its success is mainly due to a director who talks regularly to the people who hire his graduates, so the program is kept relevant at all times.

Other two-year AS programs with a very high demand include bookkeeping-type accounting and related small business management skills as well as child-care certification classes.

We certainly do not hesitate to steer a student into these programs when it is clear they are not well advised to seek a BA in business or a BS in computer science, etc.

In this area, training for electricians, machinists, auto mechanics and the like is done by a separate facility operated by the school system. It serves both adult ed and as an alternate pathway out of high school.
Maybe there is no one answer. I'm wondering why someone who is really trying is *still* trying after failing several times? Because she wants a better-paying job? Because of a parent or spouse in the background? If the objective is $$$, I would argue for the trades: construction or machine shop. Or fast-food management (you can become a millionaire running a few McDonald's). Or small, labor-intensive companies: nurseries, floor installation. A good employee (on time, hardworking) with the skills for those businesses can write his own ticket after establishing a reputation. Look at what you pay your plumber/handyman/driveway plower.
Anonymous 6:32 says: "I would argue for the trades: construction or machine shop. Or fast-food management...."

We may live in an society demanding meaningless credentials, but here at WayUpNorth CC, we train machinists, construction workers, small business managers. We are the entryway to jobs like this. We are the provider of the first credential, even if that credential is overburdened with useless math, English, social science courses.

Anonymous 6:32 also says: "...small, labor-intensive companies: nurseries, floor installation.... Look at what you pay your plumber/handyman/driveway plower."

In WayUpNorth what you're describing is mostly seasonal work or work, again, where the ticket in is a cc credential in the case of 'plumber.'

That said, I wish my bosses would stop hassling hs students about how important college is. They all know that, but in many cases are so bummed out about school after 12 years that it is senseless to pressure them into a cc admission and inevitable failure.

Don't those bosses understand that people have to earn their own wisdom and can't have it handed to them? Don't they realize that things work out better when people come to them of their own free will?

Apparently not--the head of the WayUpNorthCC system and the head of the state DOE do their set force-them-to-be-free speech whenever let out in public. Of course, they are hardly disinterested parties offering unbiased advice.
Way Up North:
I suspect one of the reasons faculty like to have a college President who has been in the trenches is this increases exposure to poorly motivated HS grads and highly motivated returning semi-adults. Maybe you need to ask if the college has statistics on retention and grad rates of the kids entering at 18 and the ones entering over 21. (I'd include those who started at 18, then took five years off before returning to college.)

It is exactly as you say. The ones who see it as continuing on to grade 13, but with less time in class so more time to play, are not going to cut it. They are unlikely to take placement into a prep class seriously since they just can't believe that their "high school" math class was only 8th grade math.

The ones returning from working their butt off, or from the military, for several years are more likely to appreciate the prep classes and know that studying hard is not actually hard *work*.
What about the service option, a la the old CCC or the German civic service corps. Americorps and the Peace Corps are great, but they're often not economically viable. If we could put some real money behind this, I think it could be invaluable. This isn't my idea, but one I've heard bandied about--most recently on public radio. Check out what the Center for Social Development at Washington U-St. Louis says:
I had a student once who failed my course, the Intro course of the major, five times. (Not all five times with me, but still.) And I wasn't at a cc - I was at a very pricey private institution. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it?
This is a great discussion, and a great point to bring up in the first place, dean dad. And it is certainly not unique to the cc world. Eastern Michigan U, where I teach, is a more or less "open admissions" university, and I do believe in that mission, but I sometimes wonder quite a bit.

A number of years ago, I taught a section of "basic writing" (not really remedial per se, but it was not credit toward graduation) that was made up of students who were all taking classes as a cohort and they were in this group because they had a test score of some sort that was extremely low. About a third of these students seemed like "normal" ones to me and I figured they'd be fine. About a third of them were clearly in this class for a reason, but I thought that if they worked hard and took advantage of what support systems we had, they'd make it. And about about a third of them were just so ill-equipped they never had a chance.

I don't think there is a good way to figure out who that last third is. I guess the way I look at it though, with our mission to let in as many students as possible, we're helping out the two thirds who can probably make it.

My 2 cents....
Take my money, please.

It’s difficult for me to write this because I’m a student like those referred to in the post.

I’ve taken Introduction to Algebra seven times and failed it five times (two withdraws). I’ve switched from an Associate of Arts degree to an Associate of General Studies degree because the latter only requires Business Math (which I’ve since failed twice and withdrawn once).

I’m an award-winning student journalist recognized locally and nationally by professional journalism organizations. I’m not stupid -- I just cannot do math. I understand the critical thinking math offers and learned how to use it in my “real” life. Gathering like terms is the same as gathering like sources. Solving for X is like finding the only copy of an unshredded secret document. I get it.

Incidentally, if word people have to adhere to math formulas, why don’t number people have to follow the rules of grammar? Have you read some of these word problems? I’ve actually turned in copy-edited math tests. Depending on the instructor, it’s earned me either extra points or glaring looks.

Sympathetic instructors have suggested I take math courses at the neighboring Poorer County Community College because it has low-income students and a lower failure rate. I’ve also had instructors advise me to take math courses online and have someone else do the work.

I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on math courses and math textbooks that resulted in either an F or a W. That money could have paid bills. It could have bought birthday presents. It could have partly paid for uninsured visits to the doctor. Yet, I don’t regret spending a dollar on math.

To many my transcript might indicate I don’t have the “ability to benefit” but I am learning. The students in each class helped me understand math a little better than I did the previous time.

I’m going to switch back to an Associate’s of Arts and enroll (again) in Introduction to Algebra next spring, Intermediate Algebra next summer (hopefully, and College Algebra in the fall.

It will be the proudest day of my life to earn a D in College Algebra because that’s what will get my AA. The greatest lesson math has taught me is that sometimes a D is an A.

Many of us don’t have family and friends who support our decision to go to college but we still go. Perhaps the reason students like me enroll in the same class each semester is because we believe we don’t have to be the best; we just have to do our best.

I don’t know what colleges can do. I only know what they can’t do -- and that is to turn us away.
CC your name is HOPE.
Sometimes I think the true purpose of the cc is to keep hope alive in those who would not have any otherwise. No one knows why a student does not pass a class or keeps taking classes. No one knows what is going on in that student's life. The cc where I have been an adjunct for 15 years (as a part time job) has a tutoring center where students can get one on one help. Our textbook publishers have on line tests, explanations and practices. Our cc has oodles of computers and stays open until 11:00 at night. If you have suggested getting training in one of the trades at a vo tech school, and the student keeps coming, he/she is there for a purpose about which you don't know. Even if he isn't passing, he may be getting status from being in college. She may need to be in the atmosphere of cc for a few hours a week because of what her life is like outside of cc.
Who knows? And what is the price tag on hope?
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