Sunday, August 16, 2015


The Stigma

I heard a comment this weekend that made me wonder.

Is the stigma of “community college” as strong as it used to be?

When I was in high school, it was an article of faith that community college was a last-ditch option for people who couldn’t get in anywhere else.  At the time, you’d hear phrases like “thirteenth grade” or “high school with ashtrays.”

Ashtrays are gone now, for other reasons, and I still hear “thirteenth grade” from time to time.  But the reactions I get from other parents when I mention where I work aren’t consistent with the old stereotypes.  Instead, I’m hearing a lot of “y’know, I used to ignore those, but they’re making a lot more sense now.”

Some of that may be courtesy, but it’s consistent enough that I’m wondering if there’s some truth to it.  If there isn’t, there should be.

If the stigma were fading, I’d guess it would be as a function of several factors.  The most basic one is cost: when even a public four-year school runs fifteen to twenty thousand a year for in-state tuition, and privates are anywhere from thirty to sixty and up per year, transferable gen ed credits at four or five thousand a year start to look pretty good.  That’s especially true if you have multiple kids.  

But value reflects quality, as well as cost, and I think some word about quality is getting out.  Many community colleges have Honors programs that challenge strong students, and that serve as transfer pipelines into some impressive places.  And as the sector has matured -- about half of the community colleges in America, including Brookdale, were founded in the 1960’s -- most adults know someone who attended the local one.  It’s harder to stereotype when a satisfied alum is in the office next door.

That said, though, I’m not sure how to measure “stigma.”  And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that shifts in the degree of “stigma” vary by demographics, whether by race, income, region, or whatever combination you prefer.

The prestige hierarchy within higher education rests mostly on a combination of age, wealth, and exclusivity.  Community colleges will lose on “exclusivity” every time, by design, since they’re open to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent.  And funding is always an issue.  The sector as a whole is getting better at cultivating alumni and other donors -- to which I say, yes, yes, yes -- but it’s starting off behind.  

But to the extent that we look at outcomes, rather than inputs, I could see the sector start to gain some overdue respect.  At a really basic level, the percentage of bachelor’s degree grads with significant community college credits is almost exactly the percentage of American undergrads enrolled at community colleges.  In other words, the widely-held myths of “dropout factories” don’t square with facts on the ground.  And the oft-cited graduation rates are measuring the wrong thing; so many students transfer before graduating, and then go on to graduate, that leaving them out simply gets the story wrong.

Wise and worldly readers, I know I’m biased on this one, so I’ll throw it open.  Do you see the community college stigma fading?  And is there some sort of reasonably objective measure of it to check?

I see that your new CC was founded in 1967. Are you planning a 50th celebration? You have a whole year to track down alumni whose lives you changed (collectively, before you arrived). My college did that, and some of the stories resonated strongly in the community.

National rankings can also play a role if you have some place where you produce students who learned something. Pass rates on nursing boards, for example, will get attention if they hit the magic 100% mark, or merely beat out "better" schools, because everyone knows they are a neutral measure.

PS - One of the more telling bits of data is how many adjuncts teach freshman and sophomore classes at your college and also at some nearby university. You don't want to do that in a venue that might anger a university partner, but many people don't know exactly what they are paying for!
The adjunct rate is not necessarily a fair comparison, as different institutions treat their contingent faculty very differently. Important details like benefits, office space, guarantees of number of courses, and so on make a huge difference in how much time and energy the contingent faculty can dedicate to teaching.

Fiftieth-year celebrations can be an excellent time for fund-raising, but you have to start any capital campaigns about two years ahead of the anniversary.

As for the stigma, there still is some. I know of students who did not get into any of the top-ranked schools they applied to (despite good grades and test scores), who ended up doing internships rather than going to community college (though we have a good one with high transfer rates here).

As an engineering professor at an R1 public university, I've seen that people do check whether the transfer students are doing as well as students who come up through the university their first two years. Currently, some majors are doing as well with their transfer students as those entering as freshmen, and some are not. The push is to try to align the transfer entry requirements with the major-declaration requirements, so that students are not disadvantaged on either route, but have the same chance of completing the degree once admitted. In the major I'm undergrad director for, the graduation rates are about the same for transfer students and for students entering as freshman—the time-to-degree is too long for both.
I think I've mentioned before here that when I was in HS in the '90s, nearly everyone I knew sought community college credits, partially to avoid notorious "weedout classes" at the state schools (English comp), partly to "buff their resumes" for the college application process; higher level computer programming and foreign language classes were available. It was the same crowd that took the AP classes, and for exactly the same reasons.
I think I've mentioned before here that when I was in HS in the '90s, nearly everyone I knew sought community college credits, partially to avoid notorious "weedout classes" at the state schools (English comp), partly to "buff their resumes" for the college application process; higher level computer programming and foreign language classes were available. It was the same crowd that took the AP classes, and for exactly the same reasons.
15 years ago my county community college was 13th grade. We jokingly called it "harvard on the severn" and that was not being nice. But now, it's a very different situation. It was always a good school but they've worked very hard to build solid relationships with 4 year school, increase their NCLEX pass rate to higher than some 4 years. All in all, I would not be ashamed for my child to choose to attend a CC first then finish out at a 4 year. I advocated just that the other day on my FB page. Reminding parents they they can say no to little precious snowflake who wants to attend super expensive school elsewhere just because.
I think the last place you would see the stigma in a measurable way is by comparing CC transfers with 4-year admits from the same school with the same grades that apply for professional school. I would also look at GRE, MCAT and GMAT scores in the two groups to see if there's a difference. This info might be impossible to get but it would show the lingering snobishness if any. Professional and grad programs are very "lineage aware" in my experience and that's where I would expect to see stigma come through.

The other thing that I think of as a cautionary tale is the experience of one very smart woman I knew who wanted to be an engineer but decided to go to CC for her first 2 years to save money (her parents bribed her with offer of a free car to do this). When it was finally time for her to apply, the programs in the area that she would have easily entered as a high school grad were impacted and closed to transers. She ended up majoring in accounting.

There is no stigma here but choosing a CC limited her chance to do what she wanted to do. I promise you that there were kids in the engineering school with lower GPAs than her that she could have run circles around academically. That is the kind of thing that would make me reluctant to let my kids go to CC unless they were really unsure about college and needed to test the waters. For those with a clear vision, I'd advise Ramen, walking everywhere, and the 4-year school.
Working with prospective students to a competitive Canadian university, I think the stigma still exists. I have had many conversations with students who I tell flat out would be better served by going to a cc. They are often not admissible to our program, but admissible to another program at the university. I lay out what's ahead trying to do an internal transfer - large classes that they will be fighting with countless other students to get into and classmates who all did better than they did in high school. Following this experience, we will look at their grades (which are awarded on a normed scale by definition) and then maybe grant them admission by internal transfer.

I compare this to the college where they spend 60% of our tuition for classes 1/4 the size. Classes they can get into.

I'm sometimes successful at convincing them to turn down an offer to the school they want in a program they don't want. Surprisingly, Most of the time they thank me for my expertise and proceed to ignore my advice.

Conversations with these same students 2 months later when they are begging me for strategies to get into over-full classes are rather trying...

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