Sunday, March 06, 2016
When Success Gets Scarce
One thing that high school reunions and Fb groups eventually show you is that valedictorians and other top graduates quite often are not the most "successful" (pick your measure) after a few decades go by. There are things that grades do not measure, or are not associated in any way with the courses that are most easily measured by grades, that matter a great deal to lifetime success.
I am most struck by those who can retire early and happily travel the globe (or their favorite parts of it) or share hobbies and time with their children and grand children without ever having been anywhere near a classic millionaire career. That approach to live is seldom shown in the movies or episodic TV.
"Some of us probably heard the story of the college president saying at freshman orientation “Look to your left. Now look to your right. One of you will make it.” It’s a sort of secular Calvinist model ..."
"Moving from that to institutions that prized “student success” was a culture shock."
I have no idea if that story is even true, because places where 2/3 of entering students drop out of college usually don't brag about it. The true story I have heard is that Caltech freshmen were told -- after a quick show of hands of those who had a perfect 4.0, were valedictorian, etc -- that from now on half of you are below average. An important teachable moment, because that is quite an adjustment to make from high school.
My version would be that the difference between a CC and a flagship R1 isn't you, it is who is sitting next to you, the person you might compare yourself with. At the flagship, usually someone just like you is sitting next to you. That difference has nothing to do with the pyramid you describe, because grads from the CC will have to deal with the demands of a university and eventually (along with grads from a sub-mediocre "success"-oriented private college) with the demands of an international economy.
My undergrad flagship institution prized student success, and the faculty put a lot of effort into developing it, but they never confused success with the passing rate. When I was first hired, my CC had the same point of view. We looked at how our grads did after transfer, and worked at improving that performance. Success was preparing you for the next class or your career, not keeping the classrooms and dorms full for the spring semester. (I am told by someone in a position to know that the last metric is a consideration at less-selective public and private schools because empty dorm rooms are big cost problem. Fewer sections just means fewer adjuncts in the spring, just like at a CC, but empty rooms still have a mortgage and maintenance costs.)
The change is when passing rate becomes part of faculty evaluations, not success in the next class or how the course compares to the same one at a nearby university. Then the person teaching the next class starts getting increasingly unprepared students and gets blamed for it. I hear about this regularly from math faculty where long sequences enhance the effect and they are now under immense pressure to make it worse.
That emphasis on passing over education is new, and threatens the ultimate success of those students as it turns CC into HS. If that isn't what you want, you need to think long and hard about how you evaluate faculty and what you tell them about your emphasis on "success", and what you tell legislators and the future employers who fund their campaigns about your views on both the number and the quality of your graduates under circumstances where you are required by law to admit them.