Tuesday, October 22, 2013


California Raisins and Community Colleges

Readers of a certain age will remember when the California Raisins singing “I heard it through the grapevine” were the hottest thing on tv.  They were the stars of a series of commercials sponsored by some sort of consortium of grape farmers in California, selling the idea of raisins.  Even at the time, I remember being sort of amazed that a consortium of farmers would pay for a series of commercials selling the concept of fruit.  It just seemed a little...abstract.  Catchy, but abstract.

In this, as in so many things, dancing raisins may show us the way.

Yesterday’s piece about GWU not really being “need-blind” hit me the wrong way.  You know who’s really need-blind?  Community colleges.  But nobody applies that label to community colleges, because we’re considered a different category.  

Well, why is that?  

Financial need is a very real thing, growing more so as incomes become more polarized and tuition and fees more expensive.  One of the very easiest ways for students to keep costs down is to start at a community college and then transfer.  Compare:

Four years at Private U: $50,000 x 4 = $200,000

Two years at cc and two years at Private U: ($4,000 x 2) + ($50,000 x 2) = $108,000

Savings with same highest degree = $92,000

Nitpick the numbers any way you want; the math is still basically the same.  Yes, there’s aid at Private U, but there’s aid at the cc, too.  (You know the median student loan debt of our graduates?  Zero.  Combine Pell grants, work-study, and low tuition, and that can happen.)  And even if the annual percentage increases in tuition are the same, PU is starting from such a higher base that assuming four years at the same cost is really cutting a lot of slack.  Add transfer scholarships to the picture, and the savings get even greater.   The path may not be for everyone, but it’s probably good for many more people than currently use it.

Which is where the California raisins come in.

No single community college has the advertising budget to get this message out on any sort of scale.  Each college is (rightly) concerned with its own local visibility and brand awareness.  But there’s a common interest across the sector in raising public awareness of the transfer option as a way around increasing student loan burdens.  No individual raisin farmer could afford to advertise the entire industry, but the industry as a whole could.

In other words, in addition to the message that “your local community college is a good school,” we need to send the message as a sector that community colleges can be good launch pads for higher degrees.

On a popular level, that will involve getting past the limits of local marketing budgets and inter-institutional competition.  On a political level, it would involve expanding the discussion around community colleges beyond just remediation and workforce development, as important as both of those are.  On the level of elite commentary, it would involve getting otherwise-intelligent people to see beyond the common fallacy of moving from “x community college has a 20 percent graduation rate” to “therefore, you have a 20 percent chance of graduating if you go there.”  That’s just simply not true, but it’s widely stated.  (Just for the sake of clarity, if you break out the grad by some really basic demographics, you start to see huge variations on that percentage.  Full-time students graduate more, part-time less.  Women graduate more, men less.  Race, income, and previous level of academic preparation play out in predictable ways.  Unless you’re perfectly average in every way, the 20 percent figure does not apply to you.)  

In the meantime, we pay the price for failing to market ourselves as well as dried fruit.  It’s time to send a different message through the grapevine.

That is a brilliant idea. And there really isn't much inter-institutional competition because CCs have a primarily local market in my part of the country. Much less than in agriculture. (And you could still respect that market by having the consortium have a web site where you enter your zip code to get the nearest CC or the one where you are "in district" in areas where that has a financial consequence.) Lateral moves would likely balance out, anyway.

Best of all, it would be a way to poach those reverse transfers out of nearby universities (yesterday's blog) without being too obvious about it! You definitely know that universities will not cooperate, because they and their football-branding operations have too much invested in being unique.
I was very aware of the financial benefits of that path, as an 18 year old. But I also desperately wanted to move out of my parents' house, and their sphere of influence in general, and try my wings. I perceived the route you lay out as being the path that those who were afraid to leave home took, and I was not afraid. I was willing to pay extra for the big adventures I imagined myself having. Like people who move to NYC even though they can barely afford a tiny studio with roaches in NYC, and could afford a two bedroom in the burbs back in Podunk, Iowa.

I think if you're going to attract 18 year olds, "practical" isn't the right selling point. You need to sell challenge, autonomy, adulthood, life-long friendships, parties, cachet... Kids are willing to take out big loans to pay for those things. They're not thinking about when the loans come due. They're kids.

Hate to be contrary but I think it’s not that straight forward. At our school, it was rare for a transfer to get their degree in less than three years and many in the sciences (especially engineering) took 4. This happened for a variety of reasons including advising at the CC level (usually students are advised to take a broad range of courses to cover GE - this is not an approach that works in the sciences because of the way our prereqs are stacked - students would show up with 3-4 years of classes to take) lack of access to required upper division prereqs (not offered at the CC), and courses not transferring as advertised. In addition, many students spent more than 2 years at the CC getting all their work completed. Add in the opportunity cost of not working during that extra time and the math works something like this:
Go to private school for 4 years and graduate:
Tuition: 50,000*4 = $200,000
Go to CC for 2 years and then private school for 3:
Tuition: CC = 30 units at $30 per unit for 2 years = $1800
Private school = $50000*3 = $150,000
Opportunity cost of losing salary: $40,000 (more for an engineer)
Total cost = $191800
Add to that the cost of having to figure out navigation of two systems, having to establish new friendships, moving, trying to get undergrad research opportunities (difficult when new to a campus) this is not as clear-cut.
Also – programs that are impacted will sometimes stop admitting transfer students so the kid who could have been an engineer ends up majoring in Math because the school is no longer accepting transfers in the major they wanted. Not the end of the world but much more difficult from the perspective of getting a job after undergrad.

I think CCs are better off touting access for people who need more flexible alternatives or smaller classes. The cost argument is tenuous.
Anonymous makes some good points about what an ad campaign might need to address. (Living away from home also played a role in my college choice.) But it also brings to my mind the huge diversity across the country. My CC happens to be near a large public university (sort like the way Dean Dad is embedded in an area with lots of private colleges) and our students can blend into that world and drink themselves out of school at a much lower price than if they got admitted to that university.

The flip side is that there is a very real possibility of being able to transfer into a selective school that would not admit you as a freshman. CC advertising (or discussions with HS counselors) could explain how that works: selective schools benefit by only letting in high test scores as freshmen, both for US News and to boost their IPEDS numbers.

Ivory makes the case for articulation -- a word I had rarely heard until I started teaching at a CC. (Blog series, DD?) It deserves more attention than it gets, and is much better where I teach than in most other places. Good articulation plays a large factor in the success of transfer students and we work tirelessly on such details as the authority to teach a class that some call "upper division" but that is in the sophomore curriculum for many majors.

(I noticed that Dean Dad's CC teaches every non-engineering class that most engineering colleges expect to be taken in the first two years.)

I'd also add that few engineers graduate in 4 years any more. The data I've seen say that our transfers take about one semester more (3 at the upper division rather than 2.5) at the nearby university if you don't count an extra semester for an internship.
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