Wednesday, November 14, 2012

 

One Message


I got asked a great question yesterday: if you could just send one message to the public, what would it be?

It's great because it forces clarity.  On the inside of any given industry, it's easy to get caught up in a level of detail that doesn't make much sense on the outside.  But assuming that the public as a whole has plenty of other things to think about, and therefore limited attention for any one thing, what one message would you like it to hear?

No, not “plastics.”  I'd go with "transfer."  

For years, community colleges mostly flew under the political radar.  That meant a certain autonomy, even as it also meant shoestring budgets.  The situation changed with the Obama administration and the Great Recession; suddenly, community colleges were the answer to unemployment.  Most of the federal and state grant money, at this point, is aimed at variations on "get people in jobs now."  

At the same time, four-year colleges have come under fire for the student loan burdens with which students leave.  Even allowing for hyperbole and a focus on the worst cases, it's still true that it really sucks to graduate with, say, $40,000 of loan debt and no job with which to pay for it.  Statistically, you're still better off with a degree than without one, but that's of limited comfort when you're living at home and trying to cobble together an income doing jobs you could have done in high school.

If only there were some way to use community colleges to reduce the debt burdens of students who want four-year degrees.

Hmm.

Wait, it's coming to me...

On the ground, those of us in the community college world are well aware of the transfer option.  Many students are, too.  But the political dialogue ignores it completely.  

In the political world, it's as if the population for which two-year colleges are relevant, and the population for which four-year colleges and universities are relevant, are completely separate.  In the political world, it makes perfect sense to increase grants for workforce development programs at community colleges even while cutting their operating funding, while simultaneously railing at four-year colleges for costing too much.

Sigh.

I wish our politics acknowledged what many people already know.  The "feeder" model of the community college -- two years of gen ed here, followed by two more years at some other, more expensive place -- can make a world of sense for many students.  You still get the high-toned degree, but you come out with much less debt.  Even better, you don't spend your freshman year getting herded into 300-person auditoriums for your intro classes.  

Acknowledging the "feeder" model would involve connecting the dots between sectors.  It would require acknowledging that there aren't two classes of institutions for two classes of people.  And it would require admitting that community colleges are, in fact, colleges.  Because they are.

I'm happy to work with the workforce development side of the college to ensure that we're addressing the needs of local employers.  We do a good job with that, and I'm proud of some of the innovations we've developed there.  But I'm also proud of the Honors classes here, the learning communities, and the record of transferring students successfully to places like Mount Holyoke and Smith.  The workforce development programs are often able to attract grants, but the core of what we do -- what this piece by Kevin Carey revealingly called "commodity courses" -- is under constant pressure.

So that's my one message for the public.  Transfer.

Comments:
Well said. Transfer's the word!

My only suggestion is to tone down the misleading message of "two years of gen ed here". That sends the implicit message of a third rate institution that doesn't have the "real" professors who can teach vector calculus or organic chemistry when the opposite is true. Students are more likely to get a "real" professor in their face every day when taking 2nd year chemistry or business calculus or statistics at a CC with 30 other students than if they take it at a research university with 200 of their best friends helped by some first year graduate assistants.

At least that is the situation at my community college, and that helps us make the case that we are more than a place to take the basic history or composition class that is a common dual-enrollment course.
 
My only suggestion is to tone down the misleading message of "two years of gen ed here". That sends the implicit message of a third rate institution that doesn't have the "real" professors who can teach vector calculus or organic chemistry when the opposite is true.

Completely agree with this. It also adds to the issue of the four year schools not wanting to take transfer credits of some of the science classes that we teach, despite the fact that our students return to visit and complain that they are repeating things they already have learned.
 
I've taught some CC transfer students recently in my engineering field, and their backgrounds from courses such as vector calculus, organic chem, differential equations, etc. are fine. These students' abilities to use that material span the same range as those of students who took the courses here at U of Location. The students' credits transfer too, at least from CC @ Similar Location. The problem these students face, which probably impacts only a small fraction of CC transfer students, is that they are transferring into a major with 3 years of stacked engineering prereqs. Year 4 requires year 3 courses, year 3 requires year 2, and at least some of the year 2 courses (such as the first one!) don't seem to be taught at the CC.

If the single message of Transfer! can be coupled with a second message, I'd suggest that the second message should be Plan Ahead. If such a snag exists in the curriculum, then maybe an interested student can take the course as a non-matriculating student. Then the transfer process can be more smooth. The financial aid, logistics, etc. - now that is something out of my area.
 
I work at a public four-year university. We routinely advise our current students to pick up a class here and there at one of the excellent local community colleges. It is a money saver for our students, and they get just as good an education as they would if they took it on our campus (sometimes better). Since the population we serve isn't rolling in dough, this is a common practice for a large percentage of our students.

We also have a statewide online system that allows a user to track what CC courses from specific institutions transfer to which public 4-year institutions and what they transfer as. This allows students to have some security that if they take Intro Bio at one school over the summer, it counts as Intro Bio at their home institution, too. That's helpful. I wish the "transfer" message coming from cc's were a bit broader to include more of these kinds of students. They aren't going to spend 2 years at a cc, but they still benefit from having great cc's nearby at bargain prices.


I do sometimes wish we could get to the students sooner, who want to take all their gen eds at a cc and then transfer. Sometimes, this is a good plan. The downsides are that every year we get new college "juniors" who have never taken a course in their major, don't really even know what major they want, and have no experience with upper division coursework - yet they're out of exploratory gen ed wiggle room because they already did all of it at the cc. So they get to the 4-year school with 2 years of gen eds completed, then load up on a heavy schedule of 300 and 400 level classes in a major with which they're inexperienced, and the results aren't that hard to predict. In that regard, the "get your gen eds out of the way early, then transfer!" message can be problematic.
 
I have to say the 2+2 model that my PubU has going with all the state CC's is a great model. It's not "take your gen eds" then come here. It's specific education to complete an AA degree then come here and most of what you have level are the 300 and 400 level core courses. And data show that our students who come in with an AA persist at an 80% rate. The best in the state and better than those who don't have an AA. We also offer a healthy scholarship to that population.
 
Anonymous@7:48pm -
I would tell them to earn a 99% A+ grade just to show them who is boss. Won't hurt in the next class either.

HS Lab Partner -
Our nearby university does not allow dual enrollment in the "majors" classes, even one that is generally taken along with the last semester of physics and vector calculus, which is too bad but unlikely to change.

The sequencing isn't too bad for transfer students who have finished all of the core classes (even if it took them three years) because plenty of "native" students don't start out ready to finish all of physics and calculus by the middle of their sophomore year.

The biggest problem some of our students have is they took only one hard class at a time, and that option goes away once they are in any science or engineering major.

Anonymous@4:04 -
Yes, the second word is "Advising". I think some of that message has to be sent periodically in classes across the curriculum, because most students just don't realize the need to plan. Could be carry over from HS, where everything was planned for them.
 
The problem is transfer shock. The transfer student arrives at a new place with new rituals, new rules and a completely new set of social and educational expectations and dies.
 
What do you think of the MassTransfer Block? I advised a history major in my department yesterday who had done the block and met almost all his GenEds that way. The exception is a 4th-year Integrative Experience Gen Ed, in the student's major, which we've introduced (up the road from you at UMass Amherst). He had also taken several courses toward his major at his 2-year college (Berkshire CC).
 
The downsides are that every year we get new college "juniors" who have never taken a course in their major, don't really even know what major they want, and have no experience with upper division coursework - yet they're out of exploratory gen ed wiggle room because they already did all of it at the cc.

I teach in a STEM discipline. STEM is highly sequenced. If you want to finish a STEM major in 4 years, that (usually) means that you need to start taking courses in the major and/or related areas in year 1. Every year we get one or two students who completed all of their GE requirements but no math or science courses (except some low-level courses that meet GE requirements but will not count toward major requirements). They think they have 2 years to go. Nope, they have 4.
 
Besides transfer shock, there is a raising of the bar when CC students transfer to a four year university. Most community college education is good, but I'm not sure the expectations and demands are the same as at a four year school.

I have seen this with students who transfer into science programs. This could be attributed to the high demand culling of the herd that occurs in the first two years of a science/engineering major at a four year university.

Whatever the reason, that first year after transfer tends to be very difficult for students.
 
I had better professors at my CC than I did at the University of school I transferred to.
 
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