Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Keep Out the Poor, the Huddled Masses…

I don’t often do this, but I’ll devote two posts to the same book.  In this one, I’ll respond to the larger conceptual issue highlighted in the IHE account of the book.  In a week or two, after having actually read the book itself, I’ll respond to its specifics more closely.

Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson have written a new book, Community Colleges and the Access Effect, in which they apparently argue that community colleges would be better off if they adopted selective admissions.  From the IHE account -- and again, stipulating that a detailed reading has yet to come -- they argue that open admissions policies and a focus on degree completion have contributed to a sort of false hope among the truly incapable that they’ll be able to get a degree.  As a result, community colleges post disappointing statistics, students drop out with useless debt, and time and money are squandered on what are essentially fool’s errands.  If community colleges were to screen out those least likely to succeed, they could do better by the ones who do get in.  As a bonus, high school students would lose the perceived safety net of community college and would try harder in high school.

Arguments can be made well or badly, so I’ll reserve judgment on Scherer and Anson’s execution of the argument until I’ve read it.  But at the conceptual level, it’s hard not to react.

I’ll start with conceding an easy piece.  Yes, we could get graduation rates up if we screened out the highest-risk students.  Selective four-year colleges have known that forever.  We wouldn’t even necessarily have to set the bar terribly high.  Just requiring that students place directly into college-level coursework upon enrollment would, by itself, do wonders for our graduation rate.  And a few basic demographic queries to IR reveal quickly who we should target.  If you know anything about racism in America, you won’t be shocked.  Catering to the middle class is easier than catering to the poor.  This is not news.

That said, the idea of simply writing off entire swaths of the population raises some serious questions.

First, where would they go?  It’s easy to say “Adult Basic Education,” but much of that is provided either by, or in partnership with, community colleges.  And most of it is badly underfunded.  It would be possible to break one institution into two, but how that saves money is beyond me.  

One could easily say “they would go to work,” but the economy has changed.  My grandfather was able to get a good unionized job with a ninth-grade education.  He was able to send his kids to college, from which they graduated without debt.  That used to be possible.  But it’s not 1950 anymore.  College degrees are imperfect means of social mobility; no argument there.  But replacing them with nostalgia is not a serious answer.

Alternately, one could say “they could get vocational certificates.”  Again, guess where many vocational certificates are awarded.  Hint: community colleges.  In fact, the major trend among “comprehensive” community colleges -- that is, those that focus on both transfer education and vocational training -- for the last ten years or so has been “stackable” certificates.  “Stackable” means that they stand on their own, but they also count towards degrees.  (For example, our Culinary certificate counts towards our degree in Hospitality Management.)  So offering certificates as an alternative to community colleges is to get community colleges wrong.

I was struck in the IHE interview when one of the authors referred to students being required to show some “ability to benefit” from college-level instruction.  I don’t know if that was a knowing reference or a fortuitous turn of phrase, but in the trenches, “Ability to Benefit” referred to an alternate route into community college for students who didn’t have either a high school diploma or a GED.  That avenue was closed off by Congress in 2012.  Now, students who don’t have diplomas have to jump through the hoops of GED testing or whatever test a given state takes as a substitute.  (We’ve adopted HiSET.)  You could look at that as raising standards, or you could look at it as exclusionary.  

At a more basic level, though, I have to hang my hat on the ecological fallacy.  Let’s say that 50 percent of young, middle-class white women graduate, and only 25 percent of young, low-income black men do.  From an efficiency perspective, then, should we only admit young, middle-class white women?  After all, they’re twice as likely to succeed.  Shouldn’t we get the most bang for the buck, and tell the rest to hit the bricks?

No, and not only for the blazingly obvious moral reasons.  Knowing the percentage of any given group tells you precisely nothing about the chances of any one member of that group. Making the inference from group to individual is called the ecological fallacy.  It’s a fundamental truth of statistics, though it’s often ignored in policy discussions.  (That’s why, for instance, it’s false to equate a college’s graduation rate with a given student’s chance of graduating.  Every time I see columnist do that, I wince.)   We lack the epistemological basis to say upfront who will succeed and who will fail.  We can’t know until their performance reveals it.

And that’s where I have to part company with those who would just throw up their hands and declare entire groups of people unreachable.

If you start with the moral position that everyone deserves a chance to chart their own course, then paternalistically writing off entire populations, even if it’s “for their own good,” is offensive.  
The only way it would be defensible would be if we knew with certainty who would fail.  But we don’t.  And the surprises matter.

If you ask people on campus what they like about working here, you won’t hear many wax rhapsodic about 1970’s brutalist architecture.  You’ll hear about the thrill of seeing students redeem second chances.  The whole point of second chances is that the first chances didn’t work.  The second chance has long been one of American culture’s most endearing qualities, and we’re at our very best when we broaden the circle of people who get those chances.  That’s probably why community colleges were invented in the United States.  For all of their quirks -- longtime readers may have seen me mention one or two -- they reflect an admirable moral position that says that nobody gets to tell me I can’t go to college.  Nobody.  

Besides, we already have selective colleges.  They’re called “selective colleges.”  Reducing community colleges to public clones of private enclaves would render them redundant.  

The real issue with student debt isn’t community colleges anyway.  It’s a combination of high tuition places, state disinvestment, and a sustained, crummy job market.  Fix those, and we’ll make real progress.  Tightening the circle to exclude the huddled masses is not the answer.

In my darker moments, I wonder if community colleges are too egalitarian, or utopian, for a culture that has forgotten that a significant middle class is a human construct, rather than a natural law. I’d be up for a principled moral argument about whether we want a political economy that’s more like Sweden or more like Brazil.  Let’s have that argument, and have it honestly.  But let’s not pretend that protecting the poor from their own ambition is for their own good.  It isn’t. They know better.  That’s why they’re here.

I am a happy tenured professor at a liberal arts college who started my education at a community college. I was a dismal high school student and would never have been admitted to a 4 year college. I was a single mother, and thus possibly a high risk student. The fact that the college took a chance on me despite my high school transcripts changed my life and the life of my children. What you say is true. Community colleges specialize in second and third chances and I, for one, am very grateful.
My anecdote:
I once had a student in calculus-based physics who started at the LOWEST level of developmental math (arguably 5th grade arithmetic and fractions). By the time I got him he was earning an A in differential equations and physics. He was clearly very intelligent, so let's just say that he had a mis-spent youth.

My response to your comments:
(I have not had time to read the article)

That proposal would ban many home-schooled children and graduates of private schools who cannot meet a college-level math standard.

Similarly, adult basic ed is hardly a solution, because a GED graduate is rarely qualified for college-level math.

The assumption that a student who lacks the preparation to take a college-level english or basic math class can go directly into any vocational program is a poor one. Many of those require a reading level that HS graduates currently lack.
This is an inspiring piece of writing, Dean Dad. Makes me want to quit my job and go work in a community college -- to do some real good in the world. (I don't think it's going to happen in the short term, but maybe some day...)
"Making the inference from group to individual is called the ecological fallacy."

My tribe (economists) calls it "statistical discrimination." Whatever it's called, it's hardly an ethical approach to decision-making.
An aside- Brazil's Gini coefficient is 54 (or 51, if you use CIA info), ours is 45. Sweden's is 25 (or 23, if you use CIA info). Arguably, we have decided what kind of society we want. And it isn't Sweden.

Now that I have read the IHE article, I sure hope the book provides careful quantitative documentation for the assertions made about the book in the intro paragraph written by IHE and the claims made by the authors in their answers during the interview.

The "influx" (that is a quote, not a scare quote) of unprepared students into public community colleges appears unchanged locally from what it was two presidential administrations ago. I haven't seen our data for a few years, but there have been no dramatic changes in the last two years since that "agenda" came on the scene. If IHE is correct that such a claim is made in the book, I'd love to see the data that supports the implication that this fraction of our freshman class has increased significantly in the last few years.

Debt incurred before dropping out of a CC after one semester can only be described as "crippling" if the student used loans as a form of welfare. I agree that there are some card operations associated with both universities and colleges that exacerbate that risk, but in my experience most of the students who do that are following the advice of friends rather than colleges.

I also agree that there is a real danger due to pressure from administrators and politicians to inflate college grades as much or more than HS grades were in the past decades, but I blame that on college "leaders" who have more in common with VA administrators than honest academics. Attack the guilty, not the victims.

The statement that "credit-bearing coursework now being offered at some community colleges that is equal to standard kindergarten fare" comes across as libelous on its face. Please name names and identify the accrediting agency that ignored such a situation, or apologize to every community college in the country that was insulted by that assertion.

Finally, I find it totally offensive that the authors would BAN a veteran of recent US military conflicts from using the GI Bill to earn a degree or certificate because s/he does not meet a college-ready standard that would guarantee graduation with a 4-year degree.
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