Wednesday, May 23, 2012


One for the Guidance Counselors

Dear Guidance Counselors,

This is the time of year when panicked seniors who either didn’t get into the colleges they wanted, or can’t afford the colleges they wanted, are looking for options.  

Some will take a “gap year,” which is a nice gig if you can get it.  Some will join the military.  Some will go to work.  And some just won’t know what to do.

According to this story in Reuters, college dropouts do just as badly in the labor market now as people who never attended college.  But two-year graduates do far, far better.  It’s much better to do two years at a two year college and emerge with a degree than to do two years at a four year college and emerge with nothing.  Cheaper, too.

Which means that for the student who’s panicking, community college can make a lot of sense.  

Every time a guidance counselor asks a student “are you looking at two year schools or four year schools,” my teeth grind.  For many students, “or” is the wrong word.  “And” is the best choice.  Go to the two year school first.  Get the Gen Eds done cheaply and in small classes.  Build a record of college success.  Keep the loan balances low.  

If the student wants to transfer on from there, that avenue is open.  (Admittedly, California is becoming an exception, but still.)  Upon transfer, the student will have only two years of the higher tuition to pay, but can still graduate with a four-year degree.  But if that’s not going to happen -- if the student’s life is such that a four-year commitment just isn’t in the cards -- then it’s far better to have a degree to show for two years of work than to just drop out.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  To an employer, a two-year degree at least indicates the discipline and ability to complete a program.  (Even if the student intended to transfer and didn’t, the degree still indicates success.)  Dropping out without anything to show for it doesn’t accomplish quite the same thing.

The community college offers the safer option.  If two years is all the student can do, it offers “graduate” status, as opposed to “dropout” status.  If the student goes past the two years, she does so with a lighter debt burden.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

I know some high schools like to brag about the percentage of their graduates who go directly to four-year colleges, and some of them even exert internal pressure not to mess with those numbers.  But thinking of two-year degrees as terminal is often mistaken.  They can be, but they frequently aren’t.  And allowing the panicky student to keep her options open on the cheap is nothing to apologize for.

Good luck, counselors.  If you doubt the wisdom of any of this, just check the numbers on unemployment rates for two-year grads as opposed to college dropouts, or student loan burdens, or average earnings for high school grads.  It’s all there.

Hoping to see many of your charges soon,

Dean Dad

That would be more interesting if the guy's idea of a graph had the context of curves for AA and BA cohorts. As it is, it is unclear if his claim has any significance.

But it makes sense. There should be a real difference between getting an AA with a coherent gen ed program and dropping out with a random subset of those classes, but I'll bet employers also suspect the dropout developed bad habits on the way to dropping out.

PS - Next time a HS brags about the fraction that go to 4-year colleges, be sure to ask them if they know how many make through the first year.
This sounds all well and good, but in my own personal experience as well as hearing about those of other CC instructors, some of the public four year schools still won't accept some of the most basic courses as transfer. If they do accept them, it might be as an 'elective', which leaves me scratching my head as to what, exactly, I'm doing creating rigorous science classes for my CC students.
Two thoughts...
1. We've found that students who transfer from from the local cc to our PU have a much higher persistence rate than those that haven't completed the AA. We push students to finish the AA. Several of our transfer scholarships require it. That makes our CC partners very happy.
2. I'm lucky that in our state an articulation was worked out years ago between the CC's and the public institutions. Students don't lose credits. And having working at a private SLAC in my state, we were very generous in transferring credit, sometimes more than the public U's would bring in. If your state hasn't gotten it's act together on transferring credit, start there.

One day, when I rule the world, the cc's in one state will all use the same course numbering system. It's a pipe dream, I know.
I don't mean this as a comment on anonymous's school or teaching, but I did want to say that sometimes there's a reason things don't transfer. I'm a big fan of the idea of community colleges - both for terminal degrees and for transfers - but I've had problems with one in particular. Far too many students with As in their chemistry classes there crash and burn spectacularly here, even when they're taking classes that should be review.
M~this is anon. I'm with on some things shouldn't transfer. No quibbles on that score. And there certainly should be a certain level of accepted academic rigor. But unless you are seeing hundreds of students failing chemistry after transferring from your CC, I'd say many are failing on their own merit not by any lack of rigor on the part of the CC.
I'm Anon 4:09 AM--our students take 15 credits of biotech at our CC's degree program, and none of it counts in the biotech programs at either of the two big 4 year schools in our area. Never mind that the students who have transfered have continued to get As and Bs at these four year schools in these classes; it's not surprising to me, though, because they are essentially repeating the same classes they took at my CC where they earned As and Bs.

I also had another friend who teaches English comp at a CC in another state tell me that the public state university does not accept the English comp credits from her CC. Really?

I understand that there might be issues at CCs, as Anon 8:24, but it seems like many four year schools just assume that we're "lesser" somehow.
The unemployment rate research dovetails with existing research on degree completion and median earnings. Step 1 is to graduate from high school normally--the research I have seen shows that getting a student with a GED is less likely to go on to a 4-year college, and if they do, it is unlikely they will complete a BA degree. I don't know what the numbers look like for GED entry and completion of AA degrees--anyone?

I will also note, with respect to transfers, that a relatively new study on transfer and mobility indicates that the most common transfer destination in higher ed is public two-year colleges--this is true even for private four-year colleges. So although articulation agreements from 2-year to 4-year are important, there is significant flow in the other direction that I think needs addressing.
Anon, I'd absolutely agree that they're failing on their own merit. But when they can't pass our classes after acing 4 classes at their previous school, or when they can't pass our general chemistry after acing a supposedly equivalent chemical technology class, I begin to doubt the rigor of their previous school's program. "Hundreds" would be an impossible standard given the number of transfer students from that program to ours, but it's a consistent problem.

I really do mean it when I say that this is not meant to suggest anything about anon's program or community colleges in general. IT wasn't really a direct reaction to anon's comment at all. It was really meant as a reaction to the idea that credits should automatically transfer - an idea which is often mentioned in this blog's comments.
I don't think credits should "automatically" transfer. I mentioned in my first comment (4:09 AM) about my own personal experience, which is what I then explained in my second comment (at 9:38 AM). I didn't mention anything about hundreds of chemistry students failing; that was someone else, who I think posted at 5:17 and 8:24. In my case, my students are essentially retaking all the biotech courses that they earned As and Bs in in my school's program and getting As and Bs at the four year schools. I think we'd agree that something is wrong with this system.

To further add to my frustration, I actually have taught courses at one of the four year schools I'm mentioning for more than a decade in this same program. Something is fishy if I'm fine to teach at the four year school, but yet, students that I send over from my CC can't have their biotech classes transfer directly.
Hey, all you Anonymouses, if you make up a blog name we'll be able to tell your comments apart.

Interesting post.
This seems like an appropriate place for a heads-up about transferring into an engineering program. Have a conversation with an advisor at your desired 4-year school BEFORE you finish the 2 years. In our engineering program, we have had students transfer after 2 years at a CC, and they are disappointed to learn that they still have 3 years ahead of them because of the stacked prerequisites. Our program is typical of engineering majors in that it has a prerequisite map with A -> B -> C -> D -> E -> F, and each is 1 semester without a summer option. "A" could be taken as a nonmatriculating student, and that in itself could help a lot with preventing such an extra year.

In short, try to plan rather than assuming that every transfer will work perfectly.
"I don't think credits should "automatically" transfer. "

As I said, my comment wasn't really a response to your post. Dean Dad brought the issue up in his allusion to California. Really, though, it's some of my current frustrations (caused by ill-prepared students) seeping into the conversation.

I'd like to echo Edmund Dantes in saying that picking some sort of name - even if for a single comment thread - would lead to a more coherent conversation.
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If it is true that earning an Associate's degree increases your earning potential vs. dropping out after 2 years at a 4-year school, wouldn't it behoove 4-year universities to offer a terminal 2-year degree? Are 4-year schools allowed to do this within the Ed. code? I'm thinking this would be similar to earning a Master's degree along the way to a Ph.D. Some leave with a terminal Master's degree if they no longer have the desire to continue working towards the Ph.D.
A second idea is to have everyone (or most everyone) start at a CC to complete the first 2 years. Then, those who want to continue towards a Bachelor's degree would transfer to a University to finish the last 2 years. This would be a dramatic shift--drastic increase in enrollment at 2-year schools. Would this work? Universities would no longer be 4-year schools, but they could specialize in research and upper division courses.
Which means that for the student who’s panicking, community college can make a lot of sense. private tuition
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