Sunday, June 02, 2013


Honors as Bait?

Should community colleges use Honors programs to prevent becoming stigmatized as providers to the poor?

Paul Fain had a wonderful piece recently, building off of some research reports appended to the Century Foundation report from last week.  In essence, the papers reported that most community colleges are either extremely white or extremely not-white; only about a third had a racial breakdown similar to that of America as a whole.  (I’m happy to report that HCC scores as integrated, if you use that scale.)  Their racial breakdowns are largely functions of geography, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the “community” part of community colleges.  

Economic class tracks similarly.  Using Pell eligibility as a marker, about half of community colleges score as “economically integrated.”  (Again, HCC does.)  The report notes that colleges with higher rates of affluent white students tend to have higher graduation and transfer rates than colleges with larger proportions of low-income students and students of color.  It notes further that “performance” metrics, if used without attention to underlying demographics, will tend to funnel more money to colleges whose students have more money, and less money to colleges whose students have less money.  

In theory, that doesn’t have to happen.  It wouldn’t take much statistical magic to set a “predicted” graduation rate based on demographics, and then to base judgments of “performance” on the margin by which a college either exceeded or fell short of the rates its demographics would have predicted.  (It’s a variation on grading on a curve.)  If the most you can claim is that you don’t usually turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, that’s not terribly impressive.  But if you punch above your weight, particularly with a group of students that ordinarily struggles, then that deserves recognition.

Don’t mix metaphors like this at home, kids.  I’m a trained professional.

Of course, a college is more than a collection of individuals.  “Peer effects” can kick in when a college’s culture leans strongly in one direction or another.  That’s the idea behind the “undermatching” literature, which asserts that high-achieving students with low income do themselves a disservice by applying to colleges that are less selective than they could have.  The idea is that colleges in which the default assumption is that everyone will graduate will pull up students on the borderline, whereas colleges where most students don’t make it will convey a certain fatalism.  

To me, that’s the more compelling argument for Honors programs in a community college context.

Yes, there’s a political upside to ensuring that community colleges aren’t typecast as being exclusively for what I recently called the Three Dollar People.  Making sure that the college serves the entire community -- including the squeezed and politically active middle class -- is prudent.  

But the educational argument strikes me as more compelling.  Honors programs aren’t just cynical attempts to game the numbers by upscaling your demographics.  They’re good-faith efforts to get around the “undermatching” hypothesis by ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to affordable, rigorous classes with high expectations.  If the talented but lower-income students with family obligations that make her effectively place-bound can still find stimulating peers at her local community college, then everybody wins.  

The “undermatching” literature seems to take for granted that talent is finite, and that only a few places can provide worthy challenges for the talented.  If you accept those premises, then yes, imperfect recruitment practices by the few worthy colleges represent a waste of talent on a national scale.  

But if you reject the premise that only a few “worthies” can possibly live up to strong students, then the question looks very different.  What if most community colleges were able to provide worthy challenges?  

Honors programs, at this level, require conscious thought in the design.  How does “honors” work for the calculus track in engineering?  How does it work in programs with relatively low enrollments already?  

But those don’t strike me as deal-breakers.  They strike me as conversation starters.  If we start with the premise that there’s a greater shortage of opportunities than of talent -- which I believe as a matter of faith -- then the solution to “undermatching” isn’t a more conscientious program of cherry-picking.  It’s spreading vigorous Honors programs far and wide.  

Yes, there’s a political benefit.  But that’s not the reason to do it.  We should do it because the students need, and deserve, it.

We have an honor's program, and it does have the intended effect of creating a community of stimulating peers, including in calculus classes.

But it doesn't exist solely to bring in upper-class white students. And I find it offensive to suggest that a college that is half "minority" is not integrated, particularly when majority-minority regions are not as rare as they once were.

A better question to ask is why a public community college system would distribute resources to its colleges in a way that effectively depends on the racial makeup of those colleges. This is probably a problem only if local property taxes provide major support a state's colleges.

I'm surprised you missed the category error implicit in the discussion of those two papers, particularly when one says that their study only controlled for student preparation "to some extent". Someone should do the simple experiment of randomly selecting applicants to one of those poorly performing colleges and sending them to an elite one with adequate financial support to cover the difference in cost.
I definitely consider the peer effect one of the big disadvantages when I consider sending my conspicuously brilliant nephew to CC for 2 years to get started. An honors college would
address that issue.

At the SLAC where I teach, several of our best students are transfers from the local CC. Some of them have ended up transferring earlier than they had hoped... having arrived at the point where they were no longer being challenged at the CC. For them, an honors program would have been great.

[By the way, in SLAC land we're starting to see more transfers from local CCs. A different model from the CC->FlagshipState route most folks assume. My suspicion, based only on anecdote, is that having experiences the smaller classes and learning-centered environment (with faculty primarily focused on teaching) of the CC, they find the undergraduate culture at the big state schools less appealing. As state subsidies dry up, a good financial package at our SLAC (our average discount is 45%) becomes more appealing. Would be curious for your thoughts?]
Why should there be "Honors" classes in college at all? Shouldn't all classes in a college be stimulating and thorough? To me, labeling one or more classes in a subject field as "Honors" says that the other classes in that subject are not as rigorous or thorough in teaching subject matter or having varied and pertinent classroom experiences.

Because of my once having been a high school student who was part of a pilot study of learning Math a different way and not being placed in the "new way" Math class, I concluded that I was deficient in Math ability. Non-required Math was never part of my major again.

When I was studying the Statistics required for my PhD dissertation, I discovered that I was actually in a matched group analysis design in high school to see if the new Math curriculum was better than the old. I wasn't in the "old way" group because I didn't have the ability to do the "new way". I was actually matched with someone in the "new way" with the same Math ability. No one explained that to me, so as a 16 year old student, I and other students in my junior class viewed those in the "old way Math" as not having Math ability. This conclusion and label we put on ourselves was false. I often wonder how many of us never enrolled in Math again as a result and called ourselves as "poor" in Math.

This is one case and I know it isn't generalizable to anyone but the population affected, but we should consider if labeling some class as "Honors" wouldn't also label students in it as "able" and those not in it as "not able". I would really like to see the same academically rigorous curriculum in all classes. Or if not possible, at least have multiple sections of "Honors" with students who are thought of as "less able or prepared" also encouraged to enroll in "Honors". I believe some students who might not appear to be "able" will meet the "Honors" standards when given a chance and challenged to meet them. How about all class objectives being the same as the "Honors" class objectives?

Acculturation is a big part of this - academic prep in the absence of the right mindset is not going to get you anywhere. In college, I was in a dorm with a "science" floor. We all took calculus together, and most of us became doctors or engineers. We didn't drink as much on the weekends or light furniture on fire at the end of the year. If you are going to be a scientist, it's hard to be the only one who doesn't like Monty Python, Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, videogames and Warcraft. You could never work with a group of engineers without at least being familiar with those things.

I think this is the true advantage of sending poor kids to SLACs - they learn the attitudes and habits of the privledged and that attitude of having earned your way, deserving to be there, counts for a lot - perhaps more than preparation. Honors classes would only work if they carried with them a healthy dose of culture and mentoring.
English Prof asks @8:41AM:
"Shouldn't all classes in a college be stimulating and thorough? To me, labeling one or more classes in a subject field as "Honors" says that the other classes in that subject are not as rigorous or thorough in teaching subject matter or having varied and pertinent classroom experiences."

In a word, "No".

The concept behind Honors classes is "Pertinent to whom?" First semester physics cannot be the same at MIT and the R1 Your State Uni down the highway. The first semester freshman calculus class at Harvey Mudd has the equivalent of a State Uni calc I class as a prerequisite. Honors classes can offer the courses pertinent to various subsets of the broad range of students who attend semi-selective Flagships and non-selective colleges.

One interesting aspect of a small Honors program like the one at my CC is that there are English majors in entry-level Honors math classes and Engineering majors in Honors humanities classes. Each is getting a deeper and broader education than they might have gotten at many universities.

PS - I wonder if there was an IRB looking at that math program you were in. If so, it failed but I suspect it is far too late to complain.
As far as having honors classes for programs with low enrollment- there are definitely options. Plenty of flagship universities have honors programs, including some that have the option for "honors" designation to be added to your transcript within the format of most courses (generally, by completing an additional assignment, often a research paper).

There is also no reason a good instructor with sufficient resources (i.e. not one grading 40 assignments solo) can't add in-class enrichment for more advanced students.

But you run into the same problems you see in gifted education in K-12: it's not inherently a priority in the "squeaky wheel" way; there's rarely funding for excellence; and I suspect if you are a university that *has* honors, you will be less integrated racially/economically if you are looking within classes. A high school can be integrated beautifully by the numbers, and still be racially stratified as all get out within academic tracks. All of which are reasons to implement them thoughtfully, not to skip them.

Good honors programs at CCs make sense for many reasons, but they can't fix racial/SES stratification, and they don't solve the problem that private colleges (as a group) perpetuate by enrolling more rich kids than bright kids.
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