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.


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.


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.