Sunday, February 10, 2013

 

Ecosystems


The last time I wrote about Sandy Shugart, I gave him a bit of a hard time.  Based on his essay last week, I regret that.  It’s a wonderful piece, well worth reading.

It’s about the “completion agenda,” and the useful and destructive ways that it can be interpreted.  Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College in Florida, points out correctly that reifying “completion” as a goal in itself sort of misses the point; the point is to produce students who are capable of learning at a high level.  If we produce highly capable students, the rest will take care of itself, assuming we don’t go out of our way to mess things up.

I’m a bit less sanguine about the whole “take care of itself” piece, probably because I’m very aware of certain basic structural issues..  But what really sold me on the piece was Shugart’s recommendation that we stop looking at individual institutions, in judging performance, and start looking at higher education as an ecosystem.  After all, that’s how most students experience it.

To take the easiest case, community colleges have significant numbers of students who are degree seeking, but for whom the degree sought is a bachelor’s.  So they do a semester or a year at the community college to save money and gather momentum, and then transfer.  As far as our graduation numbers go, those students count as dropouts, even though they got exactly what they came for.  (To add insult to injury, they don’t count in the graduation percentages at their destination schools, either.)  

At this point, the ‘typical’ bachelor’s degree student has accumulated credits at more than one college.  Some level of transfer is the norm.  And since students generally don’t have to complete an associate’s before transferring, many don’t.  (Online degree completion programs are likely to accelerate this trend.)  To hold that against the community college strikes me as a counting error, rather than any real indicator of performance.

(I disagree with Shugart that the answer is to require an associate’s degree before transfer.  That seems needlessly paternalistic.  I’d rather see measures that consider the reality of how students actually behave, and then let students follow the paths they choose.  If they want to do a year at a cc and then move on for a bachelor’s, I have no principled argument why they shouldn’t be allowed to do exactly that.  If the student achieved her own objective, give the community college the credit it’s due.)

Shugart argues further that we should only judge college completion rates when the students in question arrive college-ready.  I can’t agree -- it feels too much like an abdication of mission -- but it’s certainly true that it’s more difficult to get a student who arrives with eighth-grade reading skills through a college level program.  

A few years ago I saw Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, argue that if a community college takes someone with an elementary school reading level and gets her to, say, ninth grade reading, that the progress should be seen as a meaningful success.  There’s real truth in that.  I think that what Shugart was getting at in his reference to “value added.”  Did the student leave stronger than she arrived?  If so, that should count for something.

But crediting that requires thinking about higher education in a different way.  Historically, we’ve viewed higher education as a credentialing device, with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees comprising the focus for undergraduate education.  Credentials matter, obviously, but the idea that everyone should fit into one of two categories is getting harder to sustain.  People’s needs are much more varied than that.  Serving those varied needs well requires moving beyond simple, reductionist measures.

That’s one reason I’m happy to see the discussions around PARCC start to get momentum.  Though far from perfect, PARCC at least recognizes that it’s silly and self-defeating to separate a college completion agenda from a serious look at the K-12 system.  Many of the states that berate community colleges for teaching all those developmental classes only require two years of math in high school.  If we’re serious about improving student success in higher education, we need to see it as part of the same universe as primary and secondary education.  From a student’s perspective, it absolutely is.

My guess is that in the coming years, we’ll move from a “many paths to one goal” model to a “many paths to many goals” model.  The transition will be halting and messy, with some false starts along the way, but the net change should be positive.  Students’ needs are more diverse than one or two degree categories can, or should, cover.  If we want to meet those diverse needs, then we’ll need a much more varied and robust set of measures based on ways that actual students actually behave.  

Comments:
1) The reason Shugart pushes the AA degree is that Florida has both the best and near-worst articulation situation.

Transfer with an AA, and you are guaranteed to meet whatever random general education requirements are set by ANY of the state universities. Brilliant.

Transfer with 59 credits, and you have to meet all of the requirements of that particular institution, which can invalidate a significant fraction of your gen ed credits at a non-trivial tuition cost. I've seen you rail against this problem in the past.

2) I think you misread his statement about how to track developmental students. I saw him calling for it to be judged as a separate area, not that those students be ignored completely when looking at the college.

Why not compare apples to apples, and oranges to valencias. (Sorry, could not resist.) I think I've argued here for something like he mentions, where you look at the 100% college-ready category separate from those who, say, need one class (usually math) and those separate from ones who need a semester or more of remediation in English.

You should not expect a student who needs a full year of remediation in English to finish in the same 3-year period as a student who enters ready to go.

Further, a school with a low percentage of developmental students might look better than it really is when judged without such a distinction. Ignoring this effectively blames a college for its local school district.
 
We've done internal studies on our transfer population and since we are a non-trad mostly online PubU, the majority of our students are transfer. Those with an AA have a much higher persistence rate and GPA than those without. I wish I could remember the exact number. It's better than our general population. So there is some wisdom in requiring the AA.
 
What anonymous says is also very much the case at our midwestern R-1.
 
In Washington State, community colleges are rated by a series of "momentum points", only one of which is earning a Associate's degree:

- Making nationally recognized standardized test gains in math or in English language reading or listening as measured by pre- and post-testing or by earning a GED or high
school diploma
- Passing a remedial math or English course with a qualifying grade to advance toward
college-level work
- Earning the first 15 college-level credits
- Earning the first 30 college-level credits
- Completing the first 5 college-level math credits
- Earning a certificate backed by at least one year of college
- Earning a two-year degree or
completing an apprenticeship

One could argue with some of the details in this list, but at least it attempts to quantify students' 'momentum' towards achieving their education goals, as opposed to merely earning a certificate/degree. Colleges that exhibit year-over-year increases in their momentum points receive additional funding.
 
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