Monday, July 06, 2015


Choking on AIR

(This post was co-written with Susanna Williams)

“Overly high attendance rates at community colleges are part of a larger problem…” - Harry Holzer, AIR Institute Fellow

In an Intro to Philosophy class so many years ago, a professor told the story of the turtles.  A student asked what held the world up, and the teacher responded that the world sat on the back of a turtle.  The student asked what the turtle stood on, and the teacher said it was on another turtle.  Anticipating the question, the teacher said that it’s turtles all the way down.

Our response to this piece from AIR is “no,” all the way down.  It’s so severely wrong that it needs a full-throated rebuttal.  

The argument is a tangled mess, but as near as we can discern, it relies on several elements:

Even on its own terms, though, the argument is confused.  Holzer notes that “high achieving” high school grads do far better than “low achieving” ones, then somehow concludes that community colleges should be left to low achievers.  

To get there, he relies on the idea of “undermatching.”  The theory behind “undermatching” is that talented students will rise or fall to the level of the college they attend, so if they attend lower-level colleges than they’re capable of, they’ll leave talent on the table.

It’s a difficult argument on a good day.  A study by Scott Heil, Liza Reisel, and Paul Attewell published in AERA in 2014 found “no evidence that students who do not attend highly selective colleges suffer reduced chances of graduation as a result, all else being equal.”  A 2015 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that “46 percent of all students who completed a four-year degree had been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the past 10 years.”  If community colleges are truly deathtraps to ambition, then it’s hard to explain why the proportion of BA grads with community college experience almost exactly matches the percentage of American undergrads attending community colleges.  The math simply does not work.

Part of the issue is the easy-but-false equation of graduation with success.  As those of us in the trenches know, many students who attend community colleges don’t intend to graduate from them.  Instead, they intend to do a year and then transfer to a four-year college. (The language of “degree-seeking students” doesn’t capture that nuance.  These students are seeking degrees, just not there.)   A student who does that and subsequently graduates with a BA shows up in the cc’s numbers as a dropout, even though the student got what she came for.  That student will show up in the 46 percent figure from the NSCRC, but will show up on the negative side of a community college’s graduation rate.  Counting that as failure is measurement error.

Holzer compounds the mistake with a gratuitous swipe at humanities majors at community colleges, noting that their “market premiums” are negligible.  

No, no, no.  Wrong all the way down.

English majors at community colleges are intended for transfer.  That’s their purpose.  They should be measured on the academic success of their graduates at subsequent four-year schools.  Filtering out the high achievers -- which is what you do statistically when you exclude the earnings of students who transfer and subsequently earn higher degrees and salaries -- is measurement error of another order entirely.   How would Harvard’s alumni earnings look if we filtered out everyone who went on to law school, med school or business school?  

The assumption that community colleges prevent success is not based on evidence -- the evidence decisively shows otherwise -- but on a larger assumption about a Great Chain of Being.  If you assume that exclusivity defines quality, then it follows by definition that any college with open admissions must be terrible.  Never join a club that would accept you as a member.  If Yale is the model, then Gateway Community College can only be explained as a deviation.  

But a single Great Chain of Being assumes that every student has the same goals.  They don’t.  It also assumes that every student who wants to go to Yale, can.  They can’t.  And it assumes that failing to attend Yale is a sign of a lack of academic seriousness.  That’s false, though if we continue to fund colleges by that assumption, it could become self-fulfilling.

The logic of the “undermatching” thesis leads inexorably -- and, some of us suspect, deliberately -- to a sort of Darwinist culling of the colleges that serve the most diverse student bodies.  Performance funding schemes get applied to community colleges, with their low-income and multiracial student populations, yet flagships -- much wealthier and whiter --  escape similar scrutiny.   Given the relative costs, and the weight of evidence, that can’t be explained without reference to some much larger, and more charged, issues of stratification.

American higher education has its issues, heaven knows, but  shunting all high-achieving students to schools with better graduation rates isn’t the solution.  If we’re truly concerned about maximizing student success, why should we assume that success will only ever be possible at one of a few, deliberately exclusive places?  Why not provide the resources to help colleges do a better job where they are and where the students are?  The problem with American higher education isn’t that there’s too much of it.  It’s that we haven’t made a priority of making sure that it’s worthy of every student, including those who don’t look like Whiffenpoofs.The answer isn’t letting more students into the club. It’s eliminating the club altogether.

Where to begin? Turn his argument against him.

1) My data indicate that students attending a 4-year school are inferior to students who start at a CC. They routinely fail my CC physics classes at a higher rate than our native students, and are usually behind the students who flunked out of a 4-year school and reverse-transfer here.

If your response is "selection bias", you just showed that you knowingly presented a false argument for the undermatching hypothesis.

And some of my data indicates that students believe the nonsense purveyed by snake oil salesmen and think our classes will all be easier than anything at a "real college", so they don't attend classes an overly high fraction of the time and are surprised when they fail.

2) Many of our very best students are gone after a semester. Why? They transfer to a university that SENDS THEM TO US with a guarantee that they can transfer after one semester if they earn X credits in specific classes with an X average. And if they don't quite make it, they can transfer after a year with a Y average.

Why do they do this? Can you guess what it does to their selectivity and IPEDS graduation rate if they can deflect a group of "almost superior" students out of the FTIC cohort? Yep. And that approach further messes up the stats this guy is probably using. And you should see what it does for our FTIC AA *or* transfer graduation rate!

If this guy had access to the outstanding longitudinal data in Florida, the only explanation for his non-sensical claims is that he didn't bother to ask for the fraction of high achievers who started at a CC and earned a BS without an AA. Without the answer to that question, he has zero support for his conclusion. And with those kinds of mistakes in his analysis, did he really just ask for BA degrees and not look at BS degrees? He implied as much by not contrasting those.

And where is his data table sorted by ethnicity? He provides absolutely no support for his claim that minorities who attend a CC do worse than those who start at a second-rate university when matched academically.

3) There are no English majors or Humanities majors or Engineering majors at my college. None. Anyone saying otherwise is just talking crazy talk, and this guy is talking crazy talk when he says a "General Studies" AA degree is not a technical degree. That is the degree earned by every student who wants a STEM BS, like Engineering. We don't have a single AA degree in a "technical field", and we certainly don't offer an AS in Creative Writing. In fact, I have to wonder if he looked at AS degrees at all. They rountinely earn more than BA degrees because so many of them are in nursing or other health fields that pay quite well right out of college.

4) He implies that having 46% of "low achievers" earn a certificate or 2-year degree is a bad thing for society. I think it is a triumph! He sounds like someone who does not believe in the American Dream or realize what 30% above a HS-grad income means to a kid who is the first from a family, perhaps an immigrant family, to go beyond HS.
Oh, white people.

Is your AIR like our C.D.Howe or Fraser Institutes? That is to say, is it a 'think tank' with an agenda, that can be counted on to produce reports that 'support' the agenda, and never mind the actual information?
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?