Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Trickle-Down Departments

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke has a fascinating piece outlining his proposed hypothetical liberal arts college. Among other things, it does away with academic departments, favoring faculty who (as I read it) draw liberally on different fields of study, and encouraging students to become intellectual free agents. (He uses the term 'polymaths.') It's worth reading carefully.

I love exercises like that, since they often take you in surprising directions. They also reveal a lot about blind spots. In this case, it seems clear that an idiosyncratic, self-contained enterprise like that would have to be completely closed off to transfer students. You know, like cc grads.


Regular readers may have noticed that I occasionally get crabby at some of the dysfunctional aspects of academic departments. But the realities of transfer agreements dictate that cc's adhere to the most traditional, conservative, plain vanilla definitions of disciplines, since anything quirky doesn't transfer. (Or it transfers as a 'free elective,' which means it doesn't actually count.) So even though a departmental structure that evolved many years ago, in a very different institutional context, really doesn't make sense for us, we're largely stuck with it.

Four-year colleges – especially small ones – have the luxury of quirkiness. They can decide to, say, devote the entire freshman year to 'modes of inquiry' team-taught courses that don't have obvious disciplinary cognates. We can't. Since our students transfer to lots of different places, we have to make sure that the credits they earn with us are maximally portable. If we customized ourselves to match Quirky Local College, our grads who wanted to transfer to Midtier State would be out of luck. So it's out with the interdisciplinary, and in with Freshman Comp and U.S. History I. And when you run gazillions of sections of the same plain vanilla intro courses every year, it's hard to avoid a traditional department structure. Staffing alone pushes you in that direction.

This isn't a huge issue in itself, necessarily, but it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger trend. Elite schools set the rules, and the rest of us follow them, whether they make any sense on the ground or not.

To the extent that we differ from the elite model – remediation, vocational courses, older students – we're considered suspect or failed.

The IPEDS database is an easy example. The federal standard used for calculating graduation rates only looks at first-time, full-time freshmen. In the elite world, that's a pretty good measure. For cc's, that's almost comically inappropriate, since that's a small (if growing) minority of our students. But that's the standard, because that's what the opinion leaders of higher ed say it should be. Not coincidentally, by the measure favored by the elites, the elites look good. What are the odds?

I would love to have the freedom to try some of the quirky, ambitious, interdisciplinary stuff at my cc that right now is a prerogative of economic rank. I'd love to experiment with different structures, use different measures, and make the changes on the ground that are so painfully obvious from here. But right now, doing that would endanger our graduates.

Transgression is a prerogative of rank. We in the lower orders have to obey. Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating.

Hmmm. Transgression *can be* a prerogative of rank, but what seemed clearest to me in reading Burke's piece - and which he noted at the end of the piece - is that his imagined university would serve a *very* specific student population (generally one with money because of financial aid concerns), could not work for over 2,000 students, and could not work outside of certain academic enclaves. In other words, it's an interesting experiment, but it's an elitist experiment, ultimately. And that sort of experiment, while interesting, doesn't have much to do with your student population at a CC nor with mine at a regional comprehensive. Nor am I certain that many students within the populations at your or my institution would find such an experiment in any way appealing.

Going further, I don't think that such a model could have any sort of success at large research institutions, which seem to have a much larger impact on the curricular structures of most departments than do the curricular structures of slacs. Sure, innovative things happen at slacs, but their size and the fact that they do not typically have graduate programs means that they just don't have the influence on how liberal arts curricula work at institutions that aren't slacs.

I suppose I think that it all comes down to mission of the institution, and I think that Burke's own institutional affiliation with its mission influences the model that he suggests. That imagined model has absolutely nothing to do with an institution like mine, nor am I certain that it should.
If you put a lot of focus on your FTIC freshmen, to the exclusion of the others in your population, you could make your IPEDS data look really good, perhaps even elite (assuming being elite becomes a good thing once the elections are over). That small population can make you look good or bad, depending on who walks in that door.

But why can't you (and other like-minded CCs) make up your own measure and promote it? You could change the metric for kids who need lots of prep work, by extending the window for graduation for that cohort. Create one for "transfer in" students.

Your complaint still begs the question I have asked before: What assessments do you see as the proper measure for the success of a Community College? Saying it is "not X" does not move the discussion forward.

Apropos Dr. Crazy's comment about experimenting at an R1, it can be done with great success *but* it will only appeal to a small fraction of students and does create "transfer" problems even within the same university. It can also be done with great failure.
You touched on something that I have been struggling with myself. I work for the Dept. of Ed in my state and we are working on our report to the legislature on community college data for the year. We are struggling with showing grad rates because the data we collect uses IPEDS definitions which makes the grad rate abysmal.
I guess I have two questions for you: 1) What is a good way to explain why the grad rate appears to be so low in the current report; and more importantly 2)as we are looking at a new data collection scheme for going forward, how would you design the collection effort to best show the graduation rate?
Yeah, it's absolutely an elitist kind of institution that I'm imagining. As I told the faculty at College of the Atlantic, you're a "long tail" institution: there is only a small number of students who ought to be there, and the real challenge is to find them and persuade them.

It's worth thinking about what could carry over to a wide variety of institutions, though. In some respects, that just takes us back to the kind of constructivist v. behavioralist arguments about pedagogy. Or maybe the question is, "If a CC or regional comprehensive didn't have severe resource limitations, what would it do educationally that its students might be prepared to benefit from?" I don't think, for example, that large lecture classes with typical remember-and-repeat pedagogy benefit most students, regardless of their preparation.
Thinking about the transfer problem separately, because as you say, I don't think that's limited to my weird little design ideas.

The question here is really about pressing towards standardization versus pressing towards individuation in the higher education marketplace. I think one of the attractive things about US higher education is that it is relatively heterogenous, that it is not a national system, that it has some of the chaos and variety that market systems tend to have.

The cost to that comes when we have to compare a variety of experiences and make judgements about them. We see that with our Honors system at Swarthmore, which is non-standardized enough that most employers or graduate schools don't really know what it means, and so have a tendency to ignore it. We see it even a little in that "Swarthmore" isn't so well-known that people in general understand whether it's a good institution or not. The quirkier you get, the more burden you assume for trying to communicate something about the qualifications and abilities of your graduates to anyone who needs to know that information.

So the transfer problem is just a subset of that. But the more you decide to adapt to a standardization, the more you lose the ability to innovate or challenge the standard. Our Engineering department, for example, is really strongly committed to training their students to meet established external standards for engineering students. But that means they have firm limits on the kinds of useful pedagogical experiments they can pursue, some of which I think would benefit the whole institution, not just their majors.

I think we need more institutions at the "long tail" that serve as incubators for experiments and novel approaches to higher education, even if there are costs to the students in those institutions (in terms of explaining their degree to others) and to students elsewhere (ccs, for example) who will find their ability to transfer into such institutions limited as a result.
Timothy: I agree with you that it's totally worth thinking about these things.... I've got a longer post in mind that I'll do over at my blog, but I need to think more. I left the comment I did over here because I'm not sure how helpful it is for people at other kinds of institutions to think innovation is completely limited if they're outside of a setting that you suggest, nor that one kind of innovation fits all missions.
Those who are interested in appropriate assessment measures for community colleges may want to look at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium's (AIHEC) American Indian Measures of Success (AIMS) project. ( The majority of tribal colleges and universities are community colleges, and the tribal baccalaureate and graduate-degree granting institutions among them have more community college-like characteristics than their mainstream counterparts.
I don't know about how transfer students would work at Tim's hypothetical college. But here at the non-hypothetical College of the Atlantic, we happily accept transfer students, including those from community colleges. I've served on the Admission Committee at COA for roughly five years, so I can state with confidence that there is not a bias against CC transfer applications.

As Tim might have mentioned in the post on his blog, at COA all students construct their own major. This means that we don't need to worry about whether or not, say, Physics I at a CC counts toward a Physics major at COA. Basically we'll accept as transfer credit any credits from an accredited college. (The only exception is that we don't accept credit for Physical Education classes.) So there's no need for CCs, or anyone else, to customize themselves for quirky little COA.

I don't have statistics handy, but my sense is that students from CCs do as well as those who transfer from four-year colleges or those who start as first-year students. If anything, I'd guess that overall, transfer students graduate at a slightly higher rate than others.
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