Monday, March 30, 2015


Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Response

Kevin Carey’s new book is on the bestseller list, and getting reviews in all sorts of high-profile places.  Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center, is likely to receive much less attention.  And that’s a shame, because RACC is by far the more useful, grounded, and thoughtful of the two.

RACC reads like a literature review, rather than a broadside, but it makes a distinct argument.  The subtitle, “A Clearer Path to Student Success,” gives a clue.  It contrasts the way that most community colleges are organized -- which it calls the “cafeteria style” college -- with a guided pathways approach, and it sides firmly with the latter.  In other words, it argues that in the well-intended effort to mimic four-year colleges, community colleges have allowed options to proliferate to the point that students (and even staff) get lost or fall through the cracks.  If community colleges were to take more directive approaches and offer fewer options, the argument goes, students would be better able to discern what they need to do, and therefore would be likelier to make it through.

It’s a familiar argument.  Complete College America makes many of the same points, as RACC acknowledges.  As the literature around behavioral economics has shown, when confronted with too many choices, many people simply throw up their hands and walk away.  Getting the options down to a manageable number makes the act of choosing much less intimidating.

RACC draws heavily on social science literature throughout.  Building on the work of Carol Dweck, for example,it notes that students who embrace a “growth mindset” -- that is, a belief that intelligence is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise -- will perform better than students who have a “fixed mindset,” or who believe that IQ is simply given and unchangeable.  Students who believe the latter are likely to take initial difficulty as confirmation that they can’t do something, and to walk away in defeat.

All of which is true, though taking the insight from theory to large-scale practice is difficult.  RACC’s chapter on “Rethinking Student Instruction,” for instance, is its least successful, mostly because it doesn’t really grapple with the very real political and structural forces that line up against efforts at pedagogical change.  To be fair, that would require another book altogether, but that’s sort of the point.  

To its considerable credit, RACC deals honestly with questions of cost.  It notes that many of the reforms that it advocates would lower the institutional cost per graduated student, but that very few colleges are actually funded that way.  In the short term, many of the reforms that have been shown to work -- most notably, embedding full-time academic advisors within the academic programs themselves -- actually raise costs in the short term.  CUNY’s ASAP program, for example, is far more expensive per student than the traditional approach it supplanted.  It has higher success rates, but those don’t come cheap.  In other words, while it is entirely possible to improve outcomes, colleges will require significant and sustained infusions of operating money to do that.

RACC is particularly good on the mixed blessings of grant-funded programs.  Grant funding can be invaluable in getting programs started, and in managing transition costs.  But it goes away after a few years.  Embedded advisors, by contrast, need to be permanent, which means they need long-term, predictable, reliable funding.  When higher education’s operating budgets are subject to short-term political pressures and long-term disinvestment, that’s a serious challenge.

RACC is admirably honest on the findings and limitations of current research.  It notes that developmental math needs serious redesign, which is pretty widely accepted at this point.  But it also notes that the evidence on the effects of online courses for community college students is mixed at best, and the limited evidence on MOOCs suggests that they’re ineffective or even harmful when used as replacements for human teaching.  (They can be useful as supplements, though.)  

RACC is best read as a counterargument to the position that holds that technology and unbundling will unlock great value.  It suggests that colleges as institutions need to be more directive, not less, and that they need to double down on the human connections that actually matter for community college students.  (The crash-and-burn experience of MOOCs at San Jose State stands as a spectacular test case.)  It suggests that rather than “ending” college as we know it, we need to redesign it around the needs of students.  

RACC is relatively non-prescriptive, befitting its epistemological honesty.  But I think it’s fair to describe what its model could look like in concrete terms.  A student would start in the first semester with an introductory course that would be a sort of sampler platter for subfields in a given area of interest: business, say, or STEM.  That course would serve several purposes: it would give the student a taste of something she actually finds interesting right away, rather than asking her to slog through multiple semesters of generic developmental classes in subjects she never liked before seeing anything she cared about.  It would also help her identify interests within the larger area, so she could be steered accordingly.  And it would embed some reinforcement of basic academic skills in a context she would appreciate.

All of which presumes transferability, of course.  But in principle, that could happen.

Ideally, that intro course would also feature relatively intensive advising, to ensure that students actually pick a path and take the right classes for it.  Presumably, some students would discover quickly that the field they thought they wanted wasn’t really right for them and would have to try another; the book doesn’t address that, but it’s fixable in principle.  

We’ve built a program like that in the allied health field at HCC, and it works much as advertised.  Students get an early introduction to and overview of the various careers in the allied health field, and we have an embedded full-time advisor in the program who has both subject matter expertise and the time to meet with students.  It has been successful, though again, it isn’t cheap; we haven’t yet discovered an app for human connection.

RACC doesn’t offer a quick fix.  It suggests that change will be the work of years, carried out in fits and starts, and that the picture of what works will get clearer over time.  That seems right to me.  As an experienced administrator, I think it understates somewhat the challenges of internal change, but that’s a quibble.  It suggests that community college success at scale will actually require more resources -- which is true -- and that students respond best to actual human beings, which is also true.  It focuses on community colleges as a specific genre of institution, rather than subsuming them and every other variety under the blanket of “the university” and assuming that lazy rivers are the whole story.  Best of all, it offers useful suggestions grounded in reality, with appropriate caveats where the findings are less than definitive.

RACC isn’t the seductive read that The End of College is, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.  It’s meant to be honest, grounded, and useful, and it is.  It gets the details right.  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

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