Thursday, January 30, 2014


What Sector Jumpers See

Libby Nelson, of Politico, asked the other day on Twitter why it is that graduation rates at two-year for-profit colleges are higher than at community colleges, even though graduation rates at four-year for-profit colleges lag their public counterparts.

The standard move would be to explain why graduation rates are a poor measure of community colleges, especially when those rates are based only on the IPEDS cohort (first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, who are a distinct minority of our student body).  And that’s true, as far as it goes.  But there’s more to it than that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and I jumped on the question, because we’ve both worked in both for-profit and non-profit higher ed.  We’re both sector-jumpers.  And there are things that are readily apparent to sector-jumpers that may not be readily apparent to folks who haven’t been in the bellies of both beasts.

What do many for-profits do differently from community colleges that helps with grad rates?

- Minimal remediation, if any.  

I was amazed, when I moved from DeVry to CCM, at the shift in the percentage of students who placed into developmental English.  At DeVry, it was in the single digits.  At CCM, it was the majority.  I learned later that CCM’s percentage was fairly typical for community colleges as a sector.  

Since I taught freshman comp at DeVry for a while, I can attest that the placements weren’t because the students were all fully polished upon arrival.  They were not.  101 was a punishing course to teach, since you had to try to meet students where they were.  

Math was a different issue, but even there, there was a premium on putting students in the highest level class they could conceivably pass.  

- Backloading Gen Ed classes.  Or, eat dessert first.

Students at for-profits are there to get jobs.  Typically, that’s the key selling point that recruiters use.  And since many students have had checkered academic pasts, they’re sensitive to revisiting scenes of earlier failures.  

Most traditional colleges force students to eat their vegetables -- basic math, English, and the usual distribution requirements -- before getting to what the students recognize as the reason they’re there.  As one of the beleaguered gen ed faculty, I heard students ask every single semester why they had to take my class.  

DeVry, and apparently other for-profits as well, noticed that.  It offered a lot of A.A.S. degrees -- associate’s of applied science, as opposed to associate of science or associate of arts -- to reduce the amount of gen ed.  And the gen ed courses it did require were spread evenly through the program, or even backloaded.  Students started with dessert, and only got to the veggies at the end.

It struck me as counterintuitive at first, but over time, I saw the logic.  If you recruit with visions of becoming a telecommunications tech -- that was big at the time -- but start by sticking students in a whole bunch of plain vanilla academic classes, they’ll collectively smell a rat.  But if you give them hands-on, obviously-relevant stuff from day one and get them hooked, eventually they’ll decide that they’ve put in enough time that they aren’t going to walk away just to avoid a psychology class.  

- Highly visible career services.

Again, if you’re selling placement, then you have to stay on-message.  Many traditional colleges require a “college success” course.  DeVry did that, but it also required a “career development” course that covered resume writing, interview wear, and the like.  Students (mostly) liked the latter, even though they griped freely about the former.  (The main objectors to the career development course were students over 40.  I couldn’t blame them.)  Say what you will about giving academic credit for that, but the simple truth was that many of the students did not come in with the cultural capital to know what constituted “professional” dress, or how to handle an interview.  Rather than just sloughing that off as the student’s problem, the institution tackled the problem directly.  There’s merit in that.

None of these measures is entirely to the good, but they’re potentially useful for community colleges to consider.  On my own campus, we’ve found that students in developmental math do better when the class is “linked” to a course in their intended major, which is our variation on “eat dessert first.”  When the students are motivated by contact with what they really want, they’re likelier to endure the veggies.  We’ve moved career advising to the first semester, to help students identify goals before they choose majors.  And we’re looking at ways to help students get through developmental coursework more quickly, so they don’t just throw up their hands in frustration and walk away.  We’re doing it to benefit the students, rather than to make money, but we’re doing it.

The for-profits are open to all sorts of criticisms.  I left the sector for a reason, and I’m glad to be back among nonprofits.  But writing them off without learning from them is a waste.  

Thanks to Libby Nelson for a great question, and to Tressie McMillan Cottom for deepening the discussion.  She’s really good at that.

I’m hoping to put together a conference panel with other sector jumpers, ideally with Tressie on board too.  If you’ve worked deeply in both, I’d love to hear from you at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Instead of moving "veggies" to the end, so that students will endure them because they've been hooked on what they actually want to learn, what would happen if you dropped the veggies altogether? That is, made them optional?

I get that it would reduce demand for professors of veggies, but would there be an adverse effect on the career outcomes for the students? I suspect not. They may be trying to tell you something.
Oh Edmund,

I agree with you in theory but in practice if colleges just let students through without some measure of "veggies" they would graduate with such poor writing and math skills it would be embarrassing to admit they came from our institutions. Students are often poor judges of their own skills and no one likes doing something they suck at so the students that need the most help are often those least likely to seek it. Analogously, if I let my kids do whatever they wanted, we would have nothing but chicken nuggets and fudgsicles for every meal and they would spend their evenings watching Power Ranges until 11PM while sipping endless pouches of Caprisun. Their teachers and coaches, appropriately, would hold me, not the kids, responsible for their lack of ability to concentrate in school or play on the field. If basic skills weren’t part of the college program, employers wouldn’t blame the students for their lack of skills on graduation, they would blame the uni for giving the incompetent person a degree.

In my experience, the rationale behind frontloading is that those skills are so basic that they inform everything else the student does afterwards. Students without good math skills will never survive their first Chemistry class and without Chemistry, Biology is a no go (I once had a student who could not figure out how many pieces of DNA you would end up with if you cut a circle twice. He could not do basic algebra and could not prepare solutions or calculate dilution factors. He did not pass the class.) Without writing skills, student lab reports become incoherent monstrosities, leaving the grader wondering if there is a lack of understanding or if the student just can’t express themselves well – these states are indistinguishable when looking just at writing alone. If a writing class fixes the problem, there’s no rational reason to not take that first.

That said, colleges waste student’s time if they are already competent. Ideally, you would be able to earn something analogous to the English “O” levels and never have to reestablish your competence in math or writing ever again. Competent students could finish this in high school and zoom through college without having to retake work they had completed in the past. People who experienced an educational interruption would be able to start where they left off instead of starting over. Sadly, this would erode the funding basis for many colleges and departments (thus the explosion of gen ed at the expense of majors classes in the California State University system).

I can see sneaking in veggies by incorporating writing in your subject matter classes but you would have to either pair up a comp person with a subject matter person or do some serious training with your subject matter folks to make that work. Whatever solution you choose, throwing up your hands and assuming that “they’re adults and they will figure it out” is a recipe for disaster for some students. Responsible colleges will never do what you suggest.

Not to mention the whole tradition of a liberal arts education is to offer a well-rounded educational experience. There's a role in society for technical training institutes, but the notion that a college-educated person should have some broad exposure to history, literature, natural sciences, languages, etc., seems worth retaining, too.
Ivory, thank you for the response. I see your point.

However, given the job market today, I also see President Obama's recent point, and I wonder some of these kids are even going to college, and why we encourage them to do so. Even science and engineering jobs are in short supply right now. per the folks I know.
Ideally, you would be able to earn something analogous to the English “O” levels and never have to reestablish your competence in math or writing ever again.
Where I did my undergrad did that. If you could establish that you could write well then you didn't have to take a writing course. Either through AP/SAT scores or a placement test, students could fulfill the math requirement. Of course most of those that did well end up taking more math but at a more advanced level.
I am tempted to respond to Edmund by posting a link to an article ripping apart an op-ed by an ISU student journalist that attacked gen ed courses as a waste of time, so I will. Yes, why would a journalist need to know anything about the social sciences or biology or the chemistry of a spill in a river? Total waste of time.
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