Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Collision Mix

A friend of mine in college, who had a radio show, used to specialize in “collision mixes.”  They’d be sequences of songs that made absolutely no sense next to each other, even if each was fine on its own.  Yesterday’s news brought a collision mix of its own.

First, I read about the new report from Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown decrying the ever-increasing rate of racial and economic polarization in American higher ed.  The short version is that higher education is increasingly both reflecting and ratifying existing class stratification in American society.  Exclusive colleges take students whose parents were able to afford to raise them in good school districts, or to pay for private schools.  Students who didn’t have those advantages are far less likely to get accepted into exclusive schools, assuming they apply at all.  Since the schools present themselves as substantially meritocratic, the net effect of competitive admissions is to gloss the existing distribution of wealth with a patina of merit.  

In this view of the world, it’s a shame and a scandal that community colleges are serving much larger percentages of students of color, while exclusive colleges are not.  

Then, that very same day, I got word that my own college was getting recognition for its success in attracting and serving a growing population of Latino students.  

And I thought, hmm.

Strictly speaking, the two news items aren’t contradictory.  One measure of the success of a community college is how well it serves the people who need it.  If the service area in which the college is located is becoming more Latino -- as is happening here -- then serving that population well means we’re doing our job.  I’m glad that we’re doing a good job of offering higher education to the community.  And I’m proud to be able to report, truthfully, that our Fall-to-Spring retention rate has improved steadily over the last four years at the exact same time as our student population has become more Latino.  

But I couldn’t help but notice the different value given to the same fact from each perspective.

Carnevale is certainly right that American society is increasingly class-stratified, and that the roots of that stratification show up on the ground in a myriad of mutually-reinforcing ways.  Good school districts -- frequently, those in which it costs more to live -- do a better job of preparing students for college.  Selective colleges know that.  Students who have the family resources to work for free can take unpaid internships that get them in the door in exciting places; students who need to work for pay don’t have that option.  And so on.

So from that standpoint, the news that a community college’s student body is becoming more Latino is just another sign that something has gone horribly wrong.

But from the standpoint of those of us actually working in the community college, the news that we’re successfully reaching a population that stands to benefit greatly from higher education is an unalloyed good.  We’re extending opportunities where they need to go.

And honestly, from inside a community college, the whole “undermatching” thesis is patently offensive.  If you accept the premise that only ten percent of colleges are academically worthwhile, then the arguments about the judicious allocation of spots in the freshman classes for those ten percent become crucial.  But what if you reject the premise?  Instead of trying to pry the “low-hanging” (!!) talented students of low income out of their communities, wouldn’t it be better to improve the colleges they actually choose?

I don’t disagree with Carnevale’s concern about class stratification.  But I’m more than a little perplexed that the solution is to toss life preservers more accurately.  We’d do better to make sure that every ship is seaworthy.  Multiply choices, improve the options, and make sure that community colleges and public four-year colleges can do right by students wherever they are, and celebrate successes where and when they happen.

Most collision mixes on the radio didn’t achieve much more than some forgettable laughs.  But this one might just offer more.

Yeah, and the one might even be the cause of the other! But still, congrats on that achievement, particularly the improvement in retention.

I agree 100% with your thesis. In a normal world those first-in-immigrant-family students will go on to earn a college degree and raise kids who can to to more selective universities. A generation or three later and you have me.

What I'm not sure of is whether our world is still normal. It seems OK for professions like engineering, but less so for middle management.

What I do not understand at all is what happened to the minorities who went to college 30 or 40 years ago. Has a sociologist looked at this? Maybe their children did make the jump (that is the case for black professionals I know) but the group was not big enough to notice. That is the sort of analysis that I found lacking in that story.
CCPHysicist said...

"I agree 100% with your thesis."

My mind is *BLOWN*

Sorry, that should have had a "/gentle teasing" tag after it. I forgot that greater than/less than signs don't carry over in comments.
Many of these articles propose remedies that won't work. They allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I'm well aware that selective colleges vary in the proportion of Pell Grant students they admit, but they all are based on delivering an educational program that you have to be well-prepared to benefit from. The reasons why students arrive at college less-prepared are many; some can be dealt with by improving K-12 education and some cannot, but by the time students are 18, they either can or cannot cope with 300 pages of reading and note-taking per week; they either are or are not well-grounded in high school math. That is why we do have a range of higher-ed options. Dean Dad, how many of your incoming first-year students could keep up with the curriculum you took your first year at your alma mater? CC educators should be proud to provide an entry point to higher ed that works for a much broader range of students. And if many drop out (forever or for the time being), that's part of the deal.
And let me add (same Anonymous as above)that the selective schools do vary as to how vigorously they seek and assist poor but well-prepared students. I actually think some of the flagships are the most guilty, since they're public and often more geographically accessible. But the Georgetown study misses one important fact: wealthy studnets (top 20%, let us say) take up a lot of the space in selective colleges because even among the wealthy, college-going has increased vastly over the past decades, and the importance of having a brand name on the resume has also increased vastly.
There was a nice piece in the NYT recently about which SLAC high-prestige schools were best at enrolling low-income students...

Vassar is, apparently, the rock star.
Every ship seaworthy, indeed!
Instead of trying to pry the “low-hanging” (!!) talented students of low income out of their communities, wouldn’t it be better to improve the colleges they actually choose?

This assumes that the only benefit of going to college comes from learning. To be successful, it really helps to surround yourself with other successful people. The student in my CC math class who hears "Oh my gosh that's hard!" when I introduce a topic is getting a very different education than the one whose peers buckle down and just solve the problem.

Carnevale makes this point in the paper. He mentions that well-educated people of color are more likely to return to neighborhoods of similar color. These tend to be poorer neighborhoods, which depress the educations of their kids.

So yeah, it does help to pull them out of their communities.
Happy to help, Anonymous@6:28AM.

I agree with many things Dean Dad has written over the years. I've also learned to spot a category error at a thousand paces and the right way to run a meeting. Both are relevant at this time of the academic year.

Two things that I'd like to see him write about as a warmup to fall are

1) Are students customers and, in particular, should a Dean assume they are always right? What do the local employers he talks to think of this question?

2) Although Learning Outcomes and their Assessment have been imposed externally for various political reasons, where have they improved programs at his college or ones you might have visited?
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