Friday, March 20, 2009


After Transfer

A few months ago I mentioned a conversation with a contact at a respected private university who mentioned that her U only takes small numbers of cc grads in transfer because they've found that transfer students don't make the same level of donations as alums as 'native' students. The U doesn't like the impact on its fundraising, so it only takes enough transfer students to round out some upper-level classes. Anything beyond that it considers lost income.

Now comes a national report that claims that cc grads who transfer to four-year colleges and then graduate those make lower salaries, in the aggregate, than do students who start at those four-year colleges. The study apparently controlled for family income, age, and several other demographic variables, so this isn't just a function of comparing apples and oranges.

I have to admit finding this study disturbing. My first reaction is to want to know more about the various factors, to see if there's something we can and/or should address.

In the aggregate, community college grads are likelier to stay in the geographic area of their college. That may speak to occupational choice, though it may also speak to priorities. If staying in a given area is a priority, that may come at a cost of missed opportunities. If cc's tend to attract a more place-bound or place-loyal student body, I'd expect to see some aggregate impact of that. At my SLAC, students came from all over the country and beyond, and dispersed similarly upon graduation. The idea was to chase the best opportunities, wherever they happened to be. At my cc, that's not generally the pattern. We recruit mostly locally, and most of our grads remain local. We use that fact in pressing the case for state funding, since we can claim truthfully that the benefits of our services accrue locally. But it stands to reason that place-loyalty carries opportunity costs.

The academic in me also chafes a little at 'starting salaries' being taken as measures of educational quality. Academics as a group tend to be pretty well-educated – it's kinda what we do – but our pay scale doesn't match what you'd expect for that level of training. Good social workers make less than average pharmaceutical sales reps; does that mean our human services program isn't very good? There's a mismatch in the measure that needs to be acknowledged.

All of that given, though, I still can't help but wonder if there's a deeper issue. Do employers hold transfer status against graduates? If they do, do they have good reasons? And if they don't, then what? From whence does the difference come?

When I went from my pretty good public high school to the SLAC, the first semester was a bloodbath. It wasn't that I spent all my time partying – the 'nerd' tendencies were way too strong for that – but that the bar had been raised in a way that I hadn't seen before. It took me a semester to make the adjustment. Something similar happened when I went to grad school, and in my first semester became the punching bag for an especially brilliant professor who decided that I embodied a set of assumptions to which he took particular exception.

Those were both brutal experiences, and I still shudder involuntarily when I think about them. But they've served me well in certain ways. Most basically, I learned that I could be humbled intellectually, and still live to tell the tale. Simply put, I learned how to take a punch. This comes in handy in dealing with some faculty who like to try to use intellectual intimidation as a bullying technique. Once you've been beaten up by Mike Tyson, some street punk doesn't faze you in the slightest.

For the higher-achieving cc student, if there isn't a robust Honors or similar program at the cc, there may be a certain lack of sustained challenge. While that can lead to some eye-popping GPA's, it still shortchanges them in important ways. Being the tallest building in Topeka is fine if you never leave Topeka, but once you get to New York, the rules are different. I worry about the kid who has been the tallest building in Topeka all his life. He may be in for a rude shock.

Or not. The 'community college penalty' may be employer class bias, plain and simple. I'm not sure how to measure that, but it's certainly disturbing.

Wise and worldly readers, how might you design a question to discern whether the penalty is a reflection of actual ability or an artifact of prejudice? And if it's at least partially 'real,' what can we do about it?

At Zenith, we used to have a scholarship program dedicated to cc transfers: I found them more mature and more focused than their peers. The only downside for the university was trying to get them to leave. Once they had discovered a curriculum with variety and the possibility of doing focused upper level work, they would petition for a third year, because they loved learning so much.

I think those numbers are funky, and I wonder to what extent they are affected by the athletes who haven;t done particularly well in high school, go to cc for a couple of years to bring their skills up to par and then transfer to a four year. I don't say that with a prejudice towards athletes per se, but we all know that this is one function some cc's play.
Perhaps I missed this in the article...but I'd like to see a break down in the data for industry and years after graduation. i.e. Are there some industries (let's say, business degree type industries) where pedigree remains "important" throughout one's career? Does the wage gap even out 5-10 years post-graduation, when employers are more interested experience rather than education? I agree with DD - the survey is more than a little depressing.
Perhaps USA Today mis-represented the research, but if the article is to be believed, the study wasn't just looking at "starting salaries" but rather looked at the long range impact on wages/salaries, and even looked at "community college students who go on to earn a doctorate or a professional degree."

I would venture to say, when you are looking that far down the road, any hiring bias that may have existed has been overcome by the performance one has demonstrated on the job. (Put another way, I have seen an assessment of where one graduated play into an initial hiring decision, but I have never heard of a decision tempered with "but they did the CC thing first...hmmm." And honestly, after the first job, hiring really is focused (outside of academia) on what you have done "lately."

Also, while I understand your comment DD about CC graduates overall staying in the local area, this study was specifically looking at the subset of CC graduates that transfer to a 4 year school. As you write, your assessment is based on the "aggregate" being "likelier" to stay. Is that true in the dis-aggregate, that is, the subset that transfers to a 4 yr (with, or without, completing the associate's)

I too find this study disturbing--but mostly because it sounds like it was well done, followed a sound methodology, and the results should cause us to re-evaluate the role CC's play if they are to be seen as effective gateways to further education and not just enhanced VoTech.
discern whether the penalty is a reflection of actual ability or an artifact of prejudice

But your post implies a possible third choice: that the "penalty" is a result of the graduate's choice. Perhaps CC grads are more likely to become social workers (or teachers, or nurses) than pharma sales reps (or engineers, or whatever). That raises the question whether these choices are made out of a matter of lack of ambition, or out of a sense of civic duty and the desire to "give something back." But either way, isn't this a laudable choice?
Novel idea...

Here's the actual research report.

Honestly, it seems to say what USA Today says it says... if you attend a CC, and go on to earn further degrees you will earn less than those who went straight to a 4 yr school (oh, and you are less likely to actually finish, as well... The study doesn't bode well for CC's as feeder schools...)
I would argue more on the side of class bias. It might also be that transfer students have more difficulty integrating into informal student groups and thus do not benefit from networking to the same degree. Just some speculation.
I don't know the methodolgy of the study, but is it possible that those who earn AAs are likely to take longer to graduate (with whatever final degree they end up with) and so have fewer years in the working world--and hence earn less?
All those questions that are raised are "possible" except, as DD notes, they "controlled for family income, age, and several other demographic variables, so this isn't just a function of comparing apples and oranges."
The only criticism I have is that the authors find a large regional variation in all of their variables, but they base their CC results on Ohio only.

This is good work, though. The question remains whether the Ohio CC system is essentially representative, or if it is unusually bad in some way. Certainly, the results seem to contradict DD's experience at his own school. The implication may be that some folks' impression of CC's as "13th grade" are accurate and some folks' are not. This would be an even bigger deal than the study's results.
The salary results do not appear to be controlled for family background information, in particular parental income, due to limitations of the dataset.

The author does not note that family connections and norms are also important for getting one started on a career.

The good news is that the gap is noticeable but not the end of the world, less than 10% of the average wage. So there are still opportunities to be had.
Sorry, the first comment has to do with completion rates and the second to do with salary.
The study doesn't bode well for CC's as feeder schools.

Quite true. Unless the vast majority of all undergrads start through a CC, no college should build its curriculum around teaching only upper division classes to students who got fed to them by a CC. With selective admission as the norm, any other result would imply utter incompetence on the part of the 4-year school's admissions office. They should have found the students with the greatest innate talent, and admitted them.

What matters the most, as emphasized in the Executive Summary of the study (thanks for that link) is that the CC does offer significant upward mobility. It sure beats never going to college at all if you cannot meet the admission standards of a 4-year school.

I thought one comment about technical majors was particularly interesting. My CC "feeds" only a small fraction of the students going into engineering, but maybe quite a few of those going into criminal justice. Will show up in the statistics? Probably.
The study does not control for the students' ability. It is quite plausible than the average BA graduate who went to a community college was generally less well prepared for higher education than the average student who started at a 4-year college or a university. In other terms, it is possible that this has nothing to do with the quality of the education provided by community colleges but is all selection bias. I.e. those students who started at community colleges simply had on average lower grades in high school than those who started at 4-year colleges or universities. In that case, even if community colleges do as good a job as other institutions, their students will always be on average less good than the students who started at these other institutions.
Right, but there is an inherent selection process where only some of the CC students go to 4-year institutions.

Separately, 4-years should be admitting better students on average. See above for why that could be irrelevant. In addition, people aren't all wealthy.
I thought your point about being the "tallest building in Topeka" was useful. A very good friend of mine in college came from a much smaller town and a much smaller high school than I did. He'd been *the* top student there, in almost everything. In collage (SLAC), he did well, but not brilliantly. Then he went to Harvard Divinity School. Reality check. He was not the smartest, or even nearly the smartest--or most diligent--student in the room. Didn't work out all that well for him.

I have seen the same thing among students where I teach (3rd tier regional state school), with students who did very well in high school, went for a year or so to our flagship campus and found the atmosphere somewhat intimidating (even disregarding the social pressures), and wound up with us. And others who startd out with us, who did well in high school without ever reading a textbook or taking anything other than multiple choice tests...and found out atmosphere intimidating.

Shanging the size of the pond you're in (or, to change metaphors, suddently having to swim in a river with a swift current, instead of in a pond) can be traumatic.
On a practical level -- how do most employers even know that job applicants were transfer students? I'd think that the simple fact that employers are "transfer blind" usually (the only college worth putting on the resume is the one you got your degree from) argues towards the statistics being the result of some other factor, as folks have suggested.
Punditus Maximus said this, but I want to expand on it: The salary data didn't control for parental income.

Let's look at Worthington W. Worthington III ("Chip") and Juan Striver. Chip, whose parents have more money than God, went directly to Big U. after high school. Juan, a first generation college student from a working class family, transferred to Big U from community college. When Juan and Chip graduate, who is going to have an easier time finding a good job? Chip, of course-- if Daddy doesn't give him a job at Worthington Corp, Aunt Muffy or Uncle Chad will find him something. He has the right clothes for interviews and no trouble about transportation. Poor Juan is not in the same happy situation.

If the researchers don't control for family income, I don't see how we can say that Juan's community college transfer status is even relevant.

-- Cardinal Fang
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