Thursday, December 01, 2011


Too Many Daves

Meet Dave. Dave doesn’t exist, but his real-life counterparts do.

Dave was, well, let’s say a “casual” student in high school. He got through, but his efforts could be fairly described as uninspired. When he graduated, he had a sense that college came next, though his concept of college mostly involved beer, girls, and sleeping late. Dave’s long-suffering parents agreed that college comes next, but didn’t see much point in paying big bucks to send Dave off to Compass Direction State or St. Somebody-Or-Other, given the palpable risk that a hangdog Dave would drink his way through a failing semester and wind up back at their doorstep bearing nothing but student loan payments and a lot of laundry.

So Dave’s parents struck a deal with him. They let him live at home rent-free and helped him attend the local community college for a year, mostly taking gen eds. In return, the agreement went, Dave had to do reasonably well academically and show that he was taking college fairly seriously. If Dave got a solid year under his belt at the community college, they agreed, then his parents would foot the bill to send him where he really wanted to go for his sophomore year. Dave spent a year at the cc, did reasonably well, transferred to Compass Direction State, and lived happily ever after.

Dave showed up in our statistics as attrition. As far as the government was concerned, he dropped out of the community college, and the only possible explanation is that the community college didn’t do a good enough job. Perhaps some funding cuts will bring focus!


We have a lot of Daves. And we pay a political price for it.

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story. Apparently, the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success will recommend to Secretary Duncan that community colleges’ “graduation” rates should be recalculated as “graduation and transfer” rates. We’ll finally start receiving due credit for all the Daves who spend time here on the way to graduating from other places.

Yes, yes, yes. If we’re going to base funding decisions on institutional “performance,” then let’s at least measure the performance reasonably.

If you ask Dave about his experience with the community college -- I’ve done this with Dave’s real-life counterparts -- you’ll hear good things. The cc gave him an affordable chance to get his act together, and to prove to his parents that he could succeed in college. It allowed him to start out living at home, so he could get a little more maturity before jumping into the temptations of dorm life. He was happy to use it as a springboard.

The comments on the IHE story raised a few useful caveats. In the absence of a unit record system, for example, it may not be possible to get aggregate numbers on how many Daves eventually graduated from their destination schools, as opposed to how many just bounced around. And as Cliff Adelman pointed out, some students never really enrolled in any meaningful way in the first place, so counting them as attrition is really a category mistake. I’d also suggest that we need to have much more thoughtful discussions about the relevance of the graduation measure for people who enroll in ESL or developmental courses for life/work purposes, rather than for graduation purposes, but can’t get financial aid for adult basic ed.

But those can come next. For now, I’m just hoping that we stop getting punished for having too many Daves.

That is good news!
Still, it strikes me as missing the point a bit. Is it hopelessly naive to consider it right to ask students about their goals going in, and how they feel about the experience at the end?
It might be too much of a record-keeping nightmare, afterall. I'm pretty sure it's part of a good solution for PhD program attrition, but CCs are a whole different beast (with a lot more Daves and otherwise).
I saw Adelman's comments yesterday, and they deserve a particular shout out to get others to read them. His point about "hello/goodbye" students (which you mention) is important, but so is the point about filtering by age at college entry. One could also add "need for HS remediation". Also of note is the critique "David" offers to a comment that would blame a 2-year school for the decision by a 4-year school to accept a transfer after only half of an AA degree is complete.

Adelman's observation about poor data is just as important. Your CC only knows where it sent transcripts, not actual transfer enrollment. IPEDS is awful. Colleges should be required to track the other group of students, the ones who transfer in, and notify the most recent transcript provider(s) of that transfer so those books can be closed with a "transferred to" note. That would be a good alternative to the more complex problem of a national longitudinal data base.
I work at a CC in a different area of the country from you and we are having the same problem. The state wants to tie our funding to the graduation rate which is a nightmare for the CC's in the state because of just the issues you mentioned. This hasn't happened yet, but we can see it coming quickly.

To combat this, we have done some of the things you mention. We now ask students when they first enroll what are their intentions at the community college - graduation, or take a few classes and transfer? Of course, students change their minds or have no idea what they want at the beginning, but we hope this will give us a better idea of the actual graduation rate as a percentage of those students who actually WANTED to graduate. We have also started auto-graduating students who meet the requirements but don't apply. This is a surprisingly large number. Many students could graduate from CC but don't see any point in it, so they simply never apply. We have also been encouraging our students who transfer to reverse-transfer their hours after the go to a university so that they can still be counted in our graduation statistics. We have made this process much easier, but it still remains to be seen how many students will actually do it.

Anyway, this is a big problem, and I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone in being concerned about it!
I just thought I'd point out that Quebec's education system is pretty much set up for Dave: CEGEP covers what would be the last year of high school and first year of university in other places, before students go on at actual universities. Also, Dave would count as a successful CEGEP graduate. CEGEP costs very little to the student.

Of course, not everyone manages to do as well as Dave does, and there are certainly people who don't make it through CEGEP.
We've really been pushing the Reverse Transfer wagon here. The students who do it are excited to have finished something and getting the credits applied to the BS degree. The CC loves adding to their graduation rate. But getting the CC's on board is harder than you would think. It's a win-win for them. They get the graduation credit and the revenue. So, it's not a student stealing or money stealing issue.
"These are the Daves I know, I know. These are the Daves I know!"
I remain amazed that "transfer" was at any time considered a negative result for any university, much less a community college system.
How about Joe, who goes to a community college with a micro-managing board, where structures are designed to meet union/staff needs and not students, where only 5% of developmental math students actually finish a credit math course, and where well-intentioned faculty focus almostly exclusively on course/program level issues, totally ignoring institutional-level issues (unless they relate to salaries and benefits)? Joe can't get help, or gets a wide variety of answers to the same question; sees little value or point in a random, chaotic, and disorganized/byzantine labrynth of disconnected courses, rules, and policies; and drops out to work at the video store full-time. I would argue there are just as many Joes as there are Daves.

And herein lies the problem with this post (and blog in general, for all of its awesome ideas, great insight, and practical suggestions). It assumes the community college system is monolithic, that all institutions are the same. They are not. There are great ones, fine ones, and - increasingly - abysmal ones. I would argue that leadership and climate (more so than even resources) are the main determinant, but I don't hear or read community college analysts, writers, or pundits talk about it.
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