Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Step by Step, Inch by Inch

I was never a huge Three Stooges fan, but as a kid I’d catch a few minutes from time to time.  (I’m told that the ability to tolerate the Stooges is only carried on the Y chromosome.  It may or may not be true, but I’ve never seen a shred of counterevidence.)  They had a recurring bit in which one of them -- I want to say Curly, but don’t quote me -- would suddenly start intoning ominously “slowly I turned...step by step...inch by inch.”  It was obviously a riff on something, though I never did find out what.  

I was reminded of that in reading about the changes to the GED coming in January.  We’re turning slowly, step by step, in an ominous direction.

Not only will the new GED be more expensive and more “rigorous,” but it will even move from a test to an “experience.”  (I think the next stage is a “happening.”)  The idea, I’m guessing, is to improve the subsequent success rates of students who pass it by making it harder to pass and thereby skimming the cream.  

The change comes on the heels of a few other changes.  Last year the Feds shortened student Pell grant eligibility from 18 semesters to 12, which can have implications for students with remedial or ESL needs.  It simultaneously banned the “ability to benefit” exemption, by which students who didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED could take a placement test which, assuming they scored at or above a certain level, would demonstrate that they had the “ability to benefit” from higher education.  

Although each change was made independently of the others, the logic as a whole is clear: students who show up without high school diplomas will have a much harder time getting any sort of credit-bearing education.  And if they do, they’d better hurry up about it.

The cost issue isn’t trivial; earlier this week, one of my deans mentioned in passing that she had spent part of the previous day working with a student who hadn’t eaten in two days.  We’ve had students who lived in their cars.  If you’re that close to the line, a sudden doubling of a test cost is a very real thing.

My friend Tressie McMillan Cottom noted on Twitter recently that the for-profits figured this out some time ago, and use the dynamic to their advantage.  Why, she asked, would a strapped student choose a more expensive school over a cheaper one with a better reputation?  Because the more expensive one back-loads the costs onto loans that are so large as to seem imaginary, while community colleges throw fifty and hundred dollar fees at students upfront.  If you’re struggling to eat, a ten thousand dollar loan due in several years is pretty abstract, but a fifty dollar test fee is grocery money.  And doubling that fee may move it from a stretch to a dream.

Slowly we turn, step by step, inch by inch, away from the students who need us most.

It’s a difficult dynamic to change, especially at the campus level.  As colleges, we don’t have the option of doing what some K-12 districts are doing, and just providing food to everybody.  (For the record, I think that what those districts are doing is a fantastic idea.)  K-12 schools are “total institutions,” and they can exercise that kind of control.  Community colleges aren’t, and can’t.  But the need is still there, even if the mechanism to address it isn’t.

Since I can’t solve the holes in Federal law locally, I’ll throw it out there.  If we have to lose Ability to Benefit, can we at least keep the cost of the GED down?  

DD, your points about the rising cost and rigor of the GED test are well taken, not to mention the fact that it will be a computer-only test regimen. Heck, we even got a letter from Pearson, new owner of the GED test, that the words "GED" were not generic and needed to be accompanied by a copyright symbol.

However, the likening of the 'step by step' incremental changes to the classic Vaudeville routine is not apt. The sketch involves telling a story to a stranger after being triggered by a word (in the 3 Stooges case, "Niagara Falls"). The story invariably ends with the teller becoming so engrossed in the story that he ends up assaulting the listener (
A riff on something but you never discovered where it came from? I can't believe I'm telling a young whippersnapper "Ever hear of Google or Wikipedia or YouTube?" Al beat me to the Stooges, but what you want is

which is complete with references. OK, Wiki messed up the sentence that tries to say which versions Abbott and Costello did, so nothing is perfect. BTW, the bit from their insane movie "Lost in a Harem" appears to not be available (copyright), but this TV version is

The genius of a bit like this is that the audience knows what is coming (watch the band in the Stooges version linked above) yet each does it a bit differently (the Stooges fight better than Costello but their story isn't as elaborate, while Lucy out-acts all of them).
On your main point about the GED, I see two issues:

My impression is that the current GED is easier than the HS exit exams in my state, based on a small sample of students I have advised or taught over the years. That argues for making it more challenging, especially since our state test isn't all that tough in math, but I'd love to hear what actual experts say about the reading and math level it tests now.

Can you infer what "cost disease" makes the test more expensive when you replace paper with a computer? Shouldn't it be cheaper? Or are they recovering all of their development costs up front in fees and then turning it into profit when the costs have been recovered?
Actually, why couldn't you operate a food pantry or even a food co-op or farmer's market located on campus? I get there isn't USDA school lunch level funding, but I think there might be other USDA grants that could help, and I've seen farmer's markets adjacent to campuses before.

Also, the next time an alumni asks you what they should donate to, tell them about your new endowment fund to cover GED fees for students who took prep courses at your CC

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