Tuesday, November 03, 2009



If I had plenty of ambition and no conscience at all, this would be my plan to get my cc through the crisis and emerge with greater resources and cachet on the other side:


Although academics as a breed love to be idealistic, I'm increasingly convinced that economic class exerts a certain gravitational pull that can only be resisted with great and ever-mounting effort. Every institutional incentive we have is to go upscale.

If we dealt with the pincer movement of lower state aid and higher enrollments by imposing admissions standards -- say, by refusing to do remediation anymore -- the economics (and prestige) of the operation would take off. Blocking developmental students would, all by itself, result in a wealthier student body. We would have much higher retention, graduation, and transfer rates. We would have much less call for special services for students with severe learning disabilities. Our financial aid spending would drop dramatically, as would our spending on tutoring. We'd run proportionally more sophomore-level classes, to the understandable delight of the faculty. As our graduation and transfer rates went up, our standing as a college of first choice would go with it. And we could both impress our politicians and insulate ourselves from them, just like the University of Michigan has.

I've seen some public four-year colleges follow this strategy, and it almost always works. They decide at some point to become more exclusive, and a few years later, they're suddenly 'hot.' For whatever reason, they don't experience this move as a violation of their mission. If anything, they take pride in their newfound exclusivity.

(The marketing of something like that can get weird. "Your tax dollars at work, excluding the likes of you!" Tone is everything.)

Although I haven't seen cc's do this at the institutional level, many of them do it at the program level. Nursing programs often have competitive admissions, for example, and they have notably higher retention and graduation rates to show for it. One of the weird paradoxes of pass rates is that the more academically rigorous the class, the higher the pass rate. Developmental math classes have terrible fail rates, but calculus classes don't. Since most of us would probably agree that calculus is 'harder' than arithmetic, the difficulty of the material isn't the critical variable. In this case, the weaker students don't get to calculus in the first place.

Much of the angst cc's experience on a daily basis comes from the effort to fight gravity. Colleges were originally built for the second sons of the aristocracy, and the closer you get to that, the better it all works. Moving to open admissions in a society with increasing class polarization leads to some extremes for which the system wasn't built. As the K-12 systems from which many of our students come continue to founder, we spend more on tutoring and support services to try to make up the difference. Students who need those services notice that we're good at them, so they seek us out. Our graduation rates suffer, and we get flogged for it in the press and the political discourse. Meanwhile, the public four-year college down the street jacks up its standards and all is well.

(I still don't understand why there isn't a viable upscale proprietary college. Founders College tried that, but insisted on grafting an Ayn Randian political agenda to a model that otherwise could have worked. There's a HUGE market gap here. Any venture capitalists who'd like to take a flyer are invited to email me...)

If our politics and/or economics matched our mission, many of the issues that drive me to distraction would fade away. Until then, we're fighting gravity ever harder, and always with less.

To comment on the developmental Math pass rate. I'm teaching it and the reason students fail is that they do not do the work. It's not a problem beyond developmental. They tell me: I'm working Full-time and don't have time to do the work. I tell them if they don't do the work, and practice they will fail. And they do not do the work. And they fail. The second time they take the course, whether the next semester or years later, they do the work and they pass.

It's not about economics. It's about maturity.

It's not about teaching or pedagogy or engagement. It's about doing the work.

I also teach Liberal Arts Math and Statistics. The pass rate in those classes is 80-90%. They do the work. The 10-20% who don't complete generally withdraw due to financial and family issues.
I don't think this is as much about exclusivity as it is about triage. Since the cc (or the state, through you) heavily subsidizes tuition, and you have limited space, each student is consuming part of a finite resource pool. You can either dilute each student's share down to insufficiency, or you can devote a lean-but-usable portion to the people who are most likely to make good use of it. Otherwise, you run the risk of setting up a sort of anti-meritocracy.

That's not to say that remedial students should be tossed by the wayside, but you might have to ask them to demonstrate some level of readiness before you devote significant resources to them. The situation Susan describes with her developmental math students isn't doing anyone any good. I'm sure some students really do just need good instruction, but let's face it: a significant proportion of remedial students really need nothing more than to figure out how to work instead of drift.

Maybe you could admit weaker students to an eight-week "trial run" where they take a couple of remedial 1 or 2-credit courses? If they can demonstrate ability to progress to work at the college level, great. If not, and the learning curve is basically flat over the eight weeks, point them at alternative learning methods and tell 'em to come back in a couple of years. Don't slam the door on them permanently, of course, but if they're not ready, no point in having them waste a couple of years figuring that out.
Our school has tossed around the idea of a "remedial semester" for those students who place into remedial writing, remedial reading comprehension AND remedial math. We aren't doing these students any favors to let them take psychology and microbiology if they can't read the text. Economics (another no pre-req class) without an understanding and/or comfort level with basic math is a little unfair. Simply, we let them in and then set them up for failure.

I also think that most remedial students don't lack ability but do lack motivation, maturity, or time. As another commentor posted - many of them just need to figure out how not to drift. We don't help the issue by letting them into classes that are beyond their skill set at that particular moment of time.

We also don't help resource allotment by doing any of this. Tutoring in micro doesn't help if you literally can't read the text. Student services for disabilities doesn't help if the problem isn't writing the psych paper but actually forming complete sentences about anything.

Sigh. I wish I knew the answer.
It's not your job to teach the manifestly unprepared. As a college, you should not have to deal with those who failed to learn what they should have learned in high school.

You may, of course, choose to help out those who fall just a bit short. That's reasonable and compassionate, particularly since many of them have less failed than been failed by others.

But those who are very far from being properly prepared are not your problem; they need something quite different from what you provide. For many, that is probably some kind of high school for adults.
Keep up the good fight, DD! There's a need and a place for Michigan and Berkeley, but a much greater need for open-enrollment institutions. It's a damn shame our society doesn't value the mission of the community college, but I'm glad you're committed to maintaining it.
Dean Dad, Thanks for your post, its an insightful observation that applies to more than cc's. I teach at a regional comprehensive and I am pretty sure they would like to pursue that stategey campus wide. We already do it with specific programs (nursing, engineering, the B-school).

I agree, there is a difference between 'the mission' and the incentives. I hate to say this, but the incentives are more important. The mission can be changed with a new mission statement, but you can't make up for declining funding.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. The survival of the institution is more important than the students. Its OK to throw some remedial students under the bus, because if you don't the institution will not be around in twenty years, or if it still exists, it won't have the capacity to serve future students.

Personally, I agree that a cc should serve people who need remedial education. It should have open enrollment and devote itself to serving people who were failed (or who failed themselves) by K-12. CC's should be 'the peoples college,' but then the people should pay their taxes if they want that kind of institution. Otherwise, follow the money and get as many paying customers as you can.
I don't know that I buy the lack of lack of motivation = lack of maturity argument. I mean, sure it's easy to chalk it up to maturity and assume time will take care of it, or otherwise it's a character flaw and out of a teacher's direct influence. But I know when I took developmental math it was with people who were pretty hard working in general. It was math in particular they had trouble with, and mostly it was due to anxiety. Most people taking developmental math in community college have already failed at it a few times.
Also, while practice assuredly does help enormously in math, at the developmental level it can seem very decoupled. If it were all about practice, people who'd never had the material before would always do worse than people who had. That's not really the case.

DD- reading your link under U Michigan, I was wondering something. Why frame the tuition as a set charge, since after financial aid it basically never will be? Why not frame it as a sliding scale fee?
Living in a country where all higher education is publicly funded and open-admissions, and the overall percentage of higher ed students who make it past their first year of university is around 50%, I have to play devil's advocate here:

If you let everyone in, what does that mean for those who choose to try, even though they obviously can't handle it?

Of course everyone deserves a chance, but there are people who will ultimately just have wasted a year of their time and a bunch of their (or their parents') money. Where I come from, there are a lot of those people. None of them are happy about it, and neither is the government.

Introducing some form of selection strikes me as a good way to ensure that the people who make it into higher education are at least marginally equiped to last longer than a semester. There will be those who brand this idea as unfair, but I don't think it is. I simply think higher ed isn't for everyone, and it doesn't have to be. A significant portion of the jobs that are actually out there don't require a degree.
Do you find anything weird about claiming increasing class polarization at the same time you say that problems are arising from extending college to remedial students, as opposed to spare aristocrats?
Unfortunately, Johan, it is our job to teach the manifestly unprepared. I'm glad it is not my job, personally, but I have immense respect for the people at our CC who, like Susan, do that day after day. Those teachers do manage to take a lot of those manifestly unprepared students and prepare them for my college class.

I was going to suggest an entire blog by DD driven the comments made by Dictyranger and Anonymous6:27, among others. The problem we face is that the high schools are delivering an increasingly flawed product to us, so we have found it necessary to expand our developmental classes down to what looks like 6th grade to me. Can this part of the "college" be handled separately?

Those classes seem to work OK for the 35 year old who knows she has forgotten everything she once knew, but they pose a real problem for us when the students are straight out of HS. It makes us look like a HS (or a middle school) because of what we have to teach them, and it can take us a full year to get those students into any college-level class even IF they pass them all on the first try. That is the "gravity" problem DD is talking about.

We would look quite different if the CC only taught college classes, or just the few prep classes needed by returning adults. I've heard talk about our CC trying to identify those problem cases while still in HS, so we could actually teach the developmental classes in HS -- but with our better teachers. It would signal to them that they are ready to leave HS but not yet ready to enter college, and it would be paid for by the school district rather than the student.

By the way, that lower retention rate also translates into a lot of loan debt carried by students who never took at college class at our CC.
Sounds like a strong mandate to seriously reform your remedial approach.
I have taught Physics at the CC for the last 15 years and one major contributing factor that leads to student success issues is the advising (or lack there of) for incoming students. So much of the registration process is now online that students are not required to meet with faculty advisors at my school. Thus, many incoming students think they can take a full course load and work a full-time job at the same time and not have to make the adjustment from expectations of high school to new ones in many of these preprofessional programs that do have significant entry level standards. It seems there is no person in the process that is willing to tell the students the key word "NO", no you can't expect to learn all of the material from just going to class, no you can't try to work 40-50 hours per week and take a full course load your first term in college.

My school is at a record enrollment this last fall and I will have the lowest record level of student retention in my 45 semesters to teaching at this level. Our current administration has hammered to point home that we need to do everything possible to help our students succeed where other schools have falied them. Yet, without being able to have a full time educator or experienced staff member to meet with new students to help create a realistic schedule there is just so much I can do in the classroom. many of my students just have the attitude "I'll just drop the course and take it again next semester." without looking at the long term financial constraints of these decisons. To many, the cost of the tuitution seems to be disposable.
Anonymous physics prof:
You might find my proposed orientation message interesting, although the odds anyone will say this would appear to be zero.


I distributed portions of your discussion on how CC is not grade 13 to many teaching members in our math/science department to gain their opinions. Not much feedback except from one of our pre-engineering program teachers that thought your piece was spot on. I posted a printed copy in our Physics lab and encouraged students to read this prior to any complaining about the expected rigor of the courses being taught. Even with these posted there is still very little effort for students to go beyond any limited high school expectations which is a shame. If you can get good, hardworking and rigorous teachers at the CC level then I think the students that transfer can be much better prepared for their upper level courses than they might be if they had attended Mamooth U. Does anyone see a connection with the "lower" cost of tutition at the CC level having a connection to lower level of expectations by the students?
I dunno. I have to ruthlessly fail 20-30% of my intro students at the R1 I lecture for, too.

I think some kids just don't know that it's not 13th grade.
This might not help your case at all, but I think economics in invaluable. I wouldn't make it a required course but anyone that can spare the time in their schedule should take it in my opinion.
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