Monday, February 09, 2015


Hidden in Plain Sight

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was trying to select a running mate, Dick Cheney chaired the search committee to find one.  Eventually, of course, Cheney declared the search unsuccessful, and Bush put Cheney himself in the role. As Jon Stewart memorably reconstructed the scene, “Cheney took off his glasses, and let down his hair, and Bush suddenly realized that he had been looking for...was right there all along.”  

You might not want to dwell on that image too long.

This story from the LA Times casts community colleges in the neglected-good-girl role.  Apparently, a few years after California passed a law making transfer to the state universities easier, students are actually transferring to the state universities.  Nearly 12,000 followed that path in 2013-4, as compared to fewer than a thousand in 2011-12.

California has a massive community college system, so even the 12,000 figure strikes me as low; I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue to grow for a while as word gets out.  

For all the talk of out-of-control college costs, student loan burdens, and the like, there’s already an option in place that rarely gets recognized as an option.  The community college transfer route is hiding in plain sight.

To be sure, it takes different forms in different states, and even at different campuses.  Some states have legislated guarantees of block transfer; some have joint admissions; some rely on articulation agreements.  Even within states,you’ll find variations.  HCC recently signed an agreement with Westfield State to guarantee a student a cap of $30,000 in tuition and fees for a four-year degree, using a two-plus-two model.  (Living in dorms at WSU costs extra.)  

But the political discourse around community colleges continues to cast them entirely as job training centers, and to assume that they’re spending too much.  That’s true even though they spend far less than any other sector of American higher education, and that the largest major at many cc’s is a transfer-oriented liberal arts major.

I’m thinking we need to get better at telling stories.  Theresa MacPhail has a thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post about vaccine deniers, noting that vaccine panics have occurred repeatedly over time, and that they never get resolved through facts.  If anything, citing facts contrary to a deeply-held belief can motivate believers to dig in their heels.  (The piece is particularly good on history.  Did you know that the Anti-Vaccination League of America was founded in 1879?  I didn’t.)  It’s good to have reasons, but sometimes you need other strategies.  

Community college leaders are well-versed in numbers and anecdotes, but so far, haven’t broken through and changed the political image of community colleges.  As long as they’re pigeonholed as either “less than” or strictly vocational, they won’t get the recognition and support they should.  At some point, we need to shift the discussion to stories that will actually break through.  If Dick Cheney can do it, we can do it.

So Dick Cheney is the bookstore owner across from Geiger's porn shop in "The Big Sleep" playing up to W's Humphrey Bogart. (shudder) But thanks for the vax story with that great history. For my generation, it was polio that made everyone a believer.

That LA Times story was surreal. Their CCs didn't have transfer majors? Is it 1960 out there?

By the way, my retort is there are four kinds of colleges: those that are highly selective for admission but graduate everyone (like W), those that are sort of selective at both ends, those that are unselective at both ends, and CCs. CCs are unselective at admission and fairly selective at graduation in the transfer majors.

Our low graduation rate is a virtue, just like selective admission is a virtue. Some would like to destroy that feature, which would be a mistake IMHO.
Given that the UC and CSU systems are already hemmoraging money, I wonder what will happen as the CC-->transfer pathway truly gains traction and they start really losing viable candidates. I worked in a high school for a few years during my PhD and the truly college bound rarely considered that path in those days because they realized that few actually made the leap to the 4-year schools, sadly. And, as anywhere, there's a lot of variation among CCs here, some even then had great records at getting students to 4-years, and some...less so.
DD - there's some issues you really need to address if you really want community colleges to be an option for motivated middle class kids.
1. Stop talking about lower cost. People don't want things that are cheap, they want a deal on a high quality thing. We shop at outlet malls to get a deal on an expensive brand – there is no Walmart outlet. So sell yourself as a high quality thing that just happens to be affordable. People love to think they are getting a deal. You already kind of do this but I would focus on it more.

2. Connect with the local high schools and give those students an amazing experience. Create a way for them to enter college ready to go – remind them how good their experience was and that you’re a legit option. Talk about your students who transferred into elite institutions and thrived because of the high quality work you do. Have a budget that shows that transfer from your school to an elite costs the same as 4-5 years at a 4-year school.

3. Address the real issue that many CC students have significant drops in their GPA when they transfer. On the order of a full grade point at my institution. Find out why this is happening and really prepare your students for their launch into the 4-year world. Reach out to the transfer institutions and find out what resources are available and then connect your students to them. Yes – this is very nanny state. But the students you train are faltering when they transfer and it leaves them and the institutions they transfer to with the (false) impression that you didn’t do a good job getting them ready.

4. Get groups of faculty from the CC and the transfer institution together to talk about what students need to know after transfer. Ask the transfer institution to bring data. Create a curriculum or a set of objectives that is coherent across the institutions. This is not a time to be artisanal. Do best by your students by prepping for what they need to know in the place they are going. (I know this is crazy talk but I think it would really help.)

5. Hire counselors that give students real advice about how best to transfer into a science major. Don’t waste their time with “just do GEs”. They arrive at my state university and still have to do 4 years because they didn’t take the right courses at the CC to be ready. They have to take Chemistry and Biology multiple times because they were put in the wrong series. They are left with the impression that your counselors don’t know what they are talking about – and they’re right.

6. Connect with local 4-year schools to give students the opportunity to do research. This is especially important for preprofessional students as this experience will be part of what they are judged on when they apply to their grad programs.

7. Internships, internships, internships. Leverage your connections to local businesses to get students real hands on experience if they don’t have a “real” job already. Try to get philanthropic support for paid internships. Don’t have your students waste their time working retail unless they really want to have that be their career forever. Connect them with real entry level jobs that teach them what they need to know about the jobs they aspire to.

And last but not least - the reason that no one wants to transfer to a CSU is because they require 17 GE classes. UCs which are more prestigous require only 6. For the money, the UC transfer is a much better deal and takes less time. Unless you are place bound, you to UC. Moreover, the numbers on transfer are skewed by the fact that for a couple of years many of the CSUs were taking no transfers at all. None! So that probably accounts at least in part for the recent increase in numbers.

The stats in that article are for the Associate Degree for Transfer only--that's the new kind of degree that guarantees a student admission to CSU as a junior. Many, many more students transfer from the CCC system with other degrees (or no degrees, for that matter)--about 50,000 a year.
Thanks for those great comments, Ivory. I wish the leadership (both Board and President) would get that message. They want us to be cheap and wonder why people assume that means second rate.

We do several of the things you mention, and some of our best ambassadors in the high schools are our dual enrollment students. Many choose to finish their AA rather than go directly to the state university they planned all along to attend.

What we don't do, which is stupid, is meet with the faculty on the other side as you mention in #3. We have had meetings with HS teachers to help them align the choices they can make within Common Core to what we expect when they come in, and that has been great. I have learned a lot from individual faculty, but nothing systematic that can spread across our curriculum.
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