Monday, March 21, 2016

League Day Two: Now What?

The unofficial theme of day two of the League conference seemed to be “now what?”  Nearly every talk was some variation on “this may or may not work, but what you’re doing now clearly isn’t.”  I liked the challenge.

Brian Bostian, from Central Piedmont CC in North Carolina, led off with an in-depth discussion of placement.  Following up on Sunday’s panel and drawing on a host of studies from around the country, as well as several specifically in North Carolina, he reiterated that high school GPA is a far more powerful predictor of student success than any standardized test.  As he put it, tests predict tests, but grades predict grades.

Still, the equity issue loomed large.  When North Carolina put GPA above tests, more students placed into college-level classes.  But the students who didn’t were comparatively more likely to be male and either black or Latino than the students who moved up.  He stressed that more students of color moved up under the GPA system than under the test system; it’s just that the gain was smaller.  I don’t see an easy or clean answer to that.

Ironically enough, community colleges initially went to tests out of a desire to be democratic.  Wherever you picked up your skills, the argument goes, you picked them up.  The evidence from dropping tests is that dropping them helps everyone, but helps the worst-off the least.  I couldn’t help but wonder if something similar could be said of competency-based programs.

In answer to a question, he mentioned that right now, there’s little or no good research on placement mechanisms for students in dual enrollment or early college high school programs.  Those students don’t have high school GPA’s yet, by definition.  Do middle school GPA’s work?  Do standardized tests work?  I’d guess that middle school GPA’s would be the best indicators, but that’s really a guess.  If any wise and worldly readers have seen research on that, I’d love to hear it.

Moving to a more global view, I sandwiched myself into the standing-room-only O’Banion/Roueche panel.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of growing issues, most notably around public funding.  Gerardo de los Santos pointed out, for instance, that Arizona has gone so far as to write community colleges out of the state charter, so they don’t even exist as a line item in the state budget anymore.  That’s pretty much a textbook case of a “new normal.”

Roueche argued that community colleges need to take a page from universities and get much better at fundraising.  I was with him until he mentioned university faculty raising their own salaries through grants.  Yes, some superstars do, but they do so because they have light teaching loads to make time for funded research.  I’ve never heard of a research superstar with a 5/5 load.  And given how competitive research funding has become, I suspect that trying to compete with research universities on their own turf is a fool’s errand.  Still, it’s certainly true that local fundraising, and state-level political presence, matter more than they once did.

I was struck, though, that most of the discussion took the existing model as a black box.  I didn’t hear any mention of competency-based education, OER, PLA, or other models.  O’Banion made a passing reference to the wall between “workforce” and “liberal arts” classes, but that was it.  I’d argue that the last twenty or so years of funding declines suggest that the black box model has hit its limits; we need to become more ourselves, instead of doubling down on institutional isomorphism and assuming that the university model is the only way to go.  But getting trustees, politicians, and local business leaders to understand that is the work of years.  Those of us in the trenches are still trying to figure it out.

(The one concrete moment came when my counterpart at Bergen CC, Bill Mullaney, mentioned some of the expedients Bergen used to improve its graduation rate, such as ending late registration and establishing a mandatory success class for students in developmental classes.)

Turning from institutions to students, the afternoon started with a presentation by Felicia Ganther, Rosslyn Knight, and Jill Wendt on the Men’s Empowerment Network, a program in the Maricopa system aimed at improving the retention and success of men of color.  (Yes, they commented on the irony of a panel of three women addressing men’s issues.  We’re inscrutable…)  The issue of success rates for young men of color is national, but it was encouraging to see some helpful local efforts to address it.  

The discussion was concrete and helpful.  Ganther pointed out that the Maricopa program isn’t a student club, and it isn’t based on grant funding that will run out; it’s sponsored on the academic side, with support from the highest levels of leadership.  For context, the Maricopa system is enormous: Ganther quoted figures of 250,000 students and 10 separate colleges within it.  When she mentioned that the program drew on “several of our African-American male presidents,” I had to ask about contexts in which that’s simply not in the cards.  She responded thoughtfully, noting that corporate, community, and church leaders are often willing to step in, if asked and supported.  

In the ensuing discussion, someone brought up a “Day in the Mancave,” in which the group of young men at another campus get free haircuts and get their measurements taken for suits.  Apparently the Maricopa group makes a practice of wearing suits on Wednesdays, which both projects a presence and helps them get used to wearing suits.  It has also developed an endowment to fund transfer scholarships, which struck me as a fantastic idea.  I’ll be bringing that one back to campus.

Joe May, the Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, concluded the day with a discussion of the “College Promise” campaign, which is based on making community college free.  He admitted that his own reaction to the idea of “free” was initially negative, but when he saw that “free” resonated with students and potential students in a way that nothing else did, he put aside his reservations.  Apparently the campaign has a formal organization, chaired by Jill Biden and Jim Geringer, the former governor of Wyoming.  I didn’t realize it was quite so organized.

As with the O’Banion/Roueche panel, though, I was disappointed to see existing institutions treated as black boxes.  When May asked and answered “If we don’t, who will?  There’s no answer to that....” I wasn’t entirely sure he was right.  And his statement that college “has to be for everyone” struck me as off-key and potentially self-defeating.  In certain parts of the country, rhetoric like that pretty much guarantees defeat; it implicitly insults the majority of voters.  Better to speak of “having options” or “making available.”  Even worse, May conflated the “responsible student” with the “full-time student.”  Yes, it’s easier to succeed when you attend full-time, but sometimes that’s just not an option due to other -- wait for it -- responsibilities.  Some students are not in a position to attend full-time; making that a condition of going for free defeats the idea of reaching “everyone,” and implicitly blames the student for being broke.  As a sector, we should know better than that.  

Still, I have to admit that the current system is struggling badly; given the choice between the College Promise and what Illinois or Louisiana or Kansas is doing, I’ll take the College Promise in a heartbeat.  If we can get the big stuff right, we can fine-tune from there.  After all, some big stuff is going wrong right now.  

On to day three.