Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The High End

I’ve been involved in a series of initiatives lately based on improving student success rates (defined as passing and graduating), closing racial and economic gaps, and helping students from underrepresented groups find their way into the jobs of the future.  These are all good and worthy endeavors, and I’m happy to work with them.

As worthwhile as they are, though, they share a theme.  They all focus on the lower-achieving stratum of students.  They’re all about raising the floor.  I haven’t seen any large-scale initiatives about raising the ceiling for the high achievers.

We have some locally-grown (and locally funded) programs to cater to the high achieving students.  We have an Honors program, and some strikingly ambitious learning communities, for example.  (If it didn’t give away too much, I’d brag about the transfer record.  We send students to some pretty highfalutin places, year after year.)  But there’s no external funding for those, no state attention to them, and no apparent political support for them at the state or federal levels.

This strikes me as misguided.

Yes, it is absolutely important for community colleges to give students whose k-12 preparation wasn’t the best a second chance.  But I can’t help but think it’s also important to give the gifted-but-not-wealthy student a shot at the same caliber of education that she’d get in the first two years of a traditional, selective institution.  

That’s getting even more true as the cost gap between community colleges and private colleges grows.  

The high-achiever blind spot is of long standing, but if anything, it seems to be getting worse.  As operating budgets continue to sputter, the only meaningful new money is devoted to either workforce programs or efforts to raise the floor.  The strongest students are almost entirely forgotten.

It’s easy to assume that the strongest students will be fine even without recognition.  And there’s some truth to that, depending on how you define ‘fine.’  They’ll pass.  They’ll get good grades.  But will they be as strong as they could have been?

That matters.  The high achievers are likelier to generate the breakthroughs.  They’re the ones who will both go on to high-paying careers and “give back” at some level.  They do wonders for faculty morale, and they keep us academically honest.  

I’d hate to see the ones who don’t have money wind up underchallenged.  The loss of what they could have been is hard to quantify, but real.  

The folks who teach in the Honors and LC programs here have favorite stories of students who didn’t know how smart they actually were until they were seriously challenged.  Take away those serious challenges -- sacrificed to yet another year of flat budgets -- and we won’t see as many of those breakthroughs.  We might not even notice, focused as we are on raising the floor.  

By all means, raise the floor.  But I can’t remember the last time I heard a governor, let alone a president, brag about -- or fund -- an honors program at a community college.