Monday, May 25, 2015



Over the weekend we caught up with some old friends, many of whom have kids the same ages as ours.  Without my bringing it up, the conversation shifted at one point to dual (and concurrent) enrollment programs in high schools.  The general sentiment was in favor, with broad agreement that the senior year of high school is often relatively unproductive for many students, and presents an opportunity to do something better.  Picking up some community college classes for transcripted credit -- as opposed to placement, as the AP offers -- comes close to a free lunch, in this view.

Later on, a piece made the rounds on Twitter about “pedigree” in the context of elite hiring.  Pedigree used to refer either to literal family lineage, or to one’s alma mater.  Now it encompasses a wider range of class markers.  The degree to which someone fits the cultural mores of the upper class -- whatever her lineage -- determines her desirability in hiring and promotion.  Part of the long-understood role of elite institutions is to inculcate (or solidify) the ways of being in the world characteristic of the elites.  In other words, while the academic content of the higher tiers of higher education matters, the cultural milieu matters just as much, if not more.

And I thought, hmm.

To the extent that community college courses are taken in the context of high school -- whether on the college campus, the high school campus, online, or wherever -- they carry the stamp of a community college.  Compared to the typical high school, that may be impressive, but compared to upper tier colleges and universities, it lacks a certain prestige.  Higher education tends to define excellence by exclusivity, which necessarily puts open-admission institutions at a disadvantage.  

The dual/concurrent enrollment model may present a dilemma for elite colleges.  To the extent that they accept students with significant numbers of credits from community colleges, they reduce their own chances to inculcate the non-academic folkways that justify their prices.  But to the extent that they don’t, they’re missing out on some of the most motivated, highest-quality students out there.

In my student days, AP courses and exams served to distinguish some students from others.  But now that AP is becoming relatively common, it’s losing its value as a signal.  Community college courses are much more valid academic indicators, in many ways, but as indicators of pedigree, they’re widely scorned.  Why join a club that would accept you as a member?

I don’t make a habit of feeling sorry for admissions representatives at elite places, but I honestly have to wonder: in the applications lottery for elite places, do community college credits help applicants stand out, or does their pedigree get questioned?  

At least in principle, this should be empirically answerable, so I’ll put it to my wise and worldly readers.  Has anyone seen or done studies answering the question of the impact of community college credits on elite admissions?  Alternately, are there any admissions reps or similarly situated people in a position to know, who are comfortable sharing?  I’m curious whether the academic achievement outweighs the pedigree.

I went to an "elite" college as an undergrad. Granted, it was 25 yrs ago, so things may have changed, but I don't think that there's much crossover between the dual enrollment and elite college pools.

Almost all of my fellow students and I took honors classes in high school, and those were pretty rigorous and wouldn't have left time for community college classes. As a high school senior, I took honors English, calculus, honors physics, history, French, and Latin (at a large public high school in a working-class city). When I got to college, all of my classmates had had similar coursework. Plus, about 50% of my freshman class came from private schools, especially of the Exeter and Deerfield variety. (My college alma mater also is pretty picky about taking any transfer credits.)

Now that I teach at a community college, the small number of dual enrollment students we have don't end up going to elite colleges. They tend to favor mostly public flagship universities, with a few opting for less-selective private schools. (And there definitely don't seem to be too many honors high school seniors walking the halls of my cc. The few that we've had are academically capable, but aren't superstars.)

I guess I'd say that, in my experience, there isn't much of an intersection between the dual enrollment and elite college crowds.
I only have the plural of anecdote, with no case controls at all. See further below.

My personal (very positive) experience is irrelevant, because status-seeking by universities back then was nothing like it is today. In my day, entering college with calc 3 completed was WAY better then some AP class, and it still is. I think an AP class, where you can get an A++ on your transcript even if you fail the AP exam or pass it with what amounts to a college C, is dangerous. So is thinking that doing 14 weeks of work in an entire HS year is "doing collge work". I've seen some kids in shock when they discover what a "mere CC class" requires of them. But only regular universities seem to want them to have passed real college classes. As you noted, the elites seem to be collecting stamps.

My own experience is that the acceptance of dual-enrolled credits as an 'elite' signal depends a lot on whether a university has personal knowledge of your work product. Places that get a steady supply of our students can trust us in a way that an elite private school many states away probably cannot.

I saw one crazy case where graduating HS with an AA degree that included more than any HS could ever offer was not enough. But I told the student that they could always go there for grad school after that place came to its senses. The student is using those free 60 credits to do research plus a double major. But I think I understand why one student got accepted (as a regular AA transfer) at an elite school while another one did not. The one that got in had straight As. You have to be closer to us to trust a B.
I teach both AP Biology to high school students and college-level biology to community college students and my anecdotal experience is the opposite of CC Physicist's.

AP Biology is a far more rigorous course than even Introductory Biology for majors at most CCs (and I would argue that the skills required for the exam surpass the equivalent course at my universities).

Both my AP HS students and my CC students care a lot about their grades, but I see the AP students working harder and getting more out of the course, and in the end, most will EARN a passing grade. I wish I could say the same for the CC class, where several will badly fail every exam and then beg for extra credit. Sadly, I've learned to make my CC exams way easier.

Given that the kids who take AP classes in HS walk in with more skills and more motivation than my CC students, it seems to me that those taking AP courses in senior year are experiencing a more academically-minded culture than seniors who are sitting in a CC class.
My experience is pretty similar to CC Bio's. Taught in three states and the CC and VoTech classes haven't been anywhere close to AP in terms of rigor in any of those three. I think dual enrollment at CCs is awesome and definitely benefits some kids, but I would have a hard time trusting it as a signal marker of high quality work without knowing the institution.
I'm impressed if all of your HS AP students pass the AP exam, especially if it is for two semesters of bio credit.

So college bio-for-majors faculty don't use the "would I want to wake up in an E-room with that student standing over me" criteria? Enlightening.

My only thought is that I would hate to see the post-transfer data from your CC if you water down the tests that much. Must be awful if your principle is that you hope someone else will fail them because passing is more important than learning at your college.

Maybe that explains my experience with students transferring to schools that don't know our college's reputation for science classes that are not biology. (Some of our bio classes use multiple choice questions just like the giant university classes do.)
CC Physicist --

I should clarify -- certainly many more of my AP Bio students pass the course than the exam, but that does not phase me. The AP Bio exam is very challenging and emphasizes a specific skill set (the ability to read long questions very very quickly), that many students who would excel in college bio have difficulty with (in all the bio courses I've taken in undergrad and grad school, I never experienced such time pressure that students do on the AP exam and I never encountered so many instances where a single multiple choice question is one full page long and must be answered in less than 1.5 minutes).

Since my AP class exams are composed of AP-style questions (many of which are tricky), they are very challenging and kids have to put a tremendous amount of studying for the exams. My CC students couldn't handle those questions, so I make those exams more straight forward. I wouldn't describe the CC tests as being watered down so much as not being as overly rigorous as the AP exams. (I will admit to watering down Bio for non-majors as they sadly can't handle much more than I do with my 9th grade HS bio classes.)

To add some context, I teach in a big city with a lot of poverty and many kids who can't read or write, struggle to calculate a percent, and have never heard of a lot of the animals we discuss in biology in both the HS and the CC. The difference is that I can be selective about who I let into my AP class. Despite being required to pass remedial English before taking CC bio, the CC students are coming in with so many gaps. What's worse is that those who have been taking CC classes for a semester or two before still have no idea how to be a student (at least in a science class). I'm always amazed by how many of those who haven't taken a science class before walk in with a 4.0 only to struggle to get a C in my class.

Furthermore, AP students seem to understand how their grade is calculated, but CC students seem to expect grade inflation. Last week, a CC student asked me if I am a fair grader. When I asked what her definition of "fair grader" is, she replied "If I get B's on all the tests, you'll give me an A". My experience is that this kind of thinking is routine at a CC (that being said, I see far less grade inflation in my department than in the nonsciences, but that is what students come to expect). Yes, there are many many many HS kids with no skills and no concept of what is required to succeed academically, but few if any will show up in my AP class.
At my high school in Kansas, in the late '90s, nearly everyone took C.C. classes, including the students (of whom there were quite a few) who were bound for elite colleges.

Of course, this may have had something to do with the fact that at the time, Kansas State and University of Kansas were required by law to accept anyone who had graduated from a Kansas high school. The rumor was, since they couldn't really accommodate that many students, they set up Freshman Composition as a "weed out class," and indeed, the retention rate after freshman year was about 50% at the time.

So it became part of the culture in "good" high schools (I think of this whenever someone mentions "privilege") for students to get their freshman comp credit from the local C.C. before graduating. I can't recall whether this was normally done via dual credit (I remember we did have some dual credit classes) or whether people were actually enrolling and taking it at the community college campus, which was nearby. I think both, depending on scheduling needs.

Now, those who weren't planning on going to the state schools didn't have exactly the same motivation, and some took the AP English exam (including me.) But getting C.C. credit was such a normal part of the high school experience that people thought nothing of taking other classes that way. I personally went over to the local community college in the evenings for Intro to Computer Programming, just because I didn't like our school's computer science teacher. I think other people I knew did similar things -- taking Spanish after maxing out the high school's Spanish curriculum, taking intro engineering classes again to avoid a "weed out" class, or trying to bank credits so that they could study abroad or do a dual major and still graduate in four years... Or just do one major and graduate in three, thus saving 25% on their tuition bill.

It would never have occurred to me at the time that there would be any kind of stigma against having community college credits when it came time to apply to fancy colleges. I ended up at a little no-name liberal arts college with a good scholarship, but my friends who went to Stanford and Princeton didn't seem to see it as an issue either.

Something I meant to say - that evening Intro to Computer Programming class counted for *high school credit* and fulfilled some graduation requirement or pre-req.

The "dual enrollement" stuff worked both ways; many community college classes counted for high school credit, and people could thus use it to move some of their high school classes to timeslots outside of the normal school day, or during the summer, and I think be done with school by lunch time some semesters, or even do early graduation from the high school in a few cases. That was another big part of the appeal too.

I don't think it had anything to do with the C.C., but I even took "health" as an online class for high school credit, back in those very early days of online classes. I'm sure these days students would love the opportunity to get high school credit for online classes offered through the C.C.

So even if you were applying to a college which wouldn't accept your C.C. credits (so that credit banking and skipping weed-out classes didn't work), there could still be some big advantages in terms of your high school experience, to having taken classes there.

My experience 20-odd years ago is very different than theleadingstrand's. I had plenty of cc credit and went to an elite school. My boyfriend at the time graduated from high school and got an AA degree at the same time and instead of going to the state flagship where he would have graduated in 2 years, he went to an elite school. Like Mary says, at least back then, even if the elite school doesn't accept CC credits, there was still an advantage to having taken the classes.

I have no idea what the scene is like with today's increase in dual-credit. You're absolutely right that the signal is different. I seriously doubt that it's a negative though.
Thanks for that feedback, CCBioProf and HSBioTeach @3:52AM -

It gave me a lot of insight into a familiar issue: reading skills and vocabulary. Where I teach, that shows up as often in non-native speakers (some have English as a third language) as native ones, but mostly shows up in the lab.

I am only familiar with the new AP Physics curriculum and its approach to testing the skills and concepts considered important for credit in a trig-based physics class, where the long questions concern lab situations rather than "problems". I think it matches or exceeds the difficulty of that pre-med physics class at universities and colleges, as it should when it takes two calendar years to do 30 weeks of physics. The old version created some challenging problems because it gave us students who cruised through the first semester of real physics (they already knew 80% of it) and then struggled big time in the second semester because they hadn't learned any study skills. Albeit indirect, I see similar problems with one semester of AP calculus.

Agree 100% on the non-majors classes, but universities do the same thing. What else can you do with 1000 students in a bio lecture?

Ditto for the non-science parts of the college creating problems for the ones that still insist on rigor and haven't inflated grades since Vietnam ended.
I was a dually-enrolled student between 1999-2001. I went to the community college for my courses (as opposed to taking them at my high school). I probably could have done just fine at an elite school, but I have no idea if having my AAS would have helped or hindered me, because the big problem was that no one suggested it was even an option as a place to apply. Once I started at the CC, my high school pretty much abandoned me, and the CC wasn't used to sending students to elite schools (they transferred students primarily to major state schools and local liberal arts colleges). This might have been a result of geography as much as anything else, though--you had to go 1000 miles to get to the nearest elite school. I ended up going to good non-local liberal arts college, and then to grad school from there.

However, I'm really grateful to have been dually enrolled. There were only a very limited number of AP courses at my HS at the time (Calculus, Physics, and English), and they were only available senior year. I started taking college classes my jr year, and I got to take a much wider range of courses than my friends who stayed: Middle East History and Politics, Differential Equations, Linguistics, Astronomy, in addition to all the usual English/US History/Calculus/Physics.
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