In a conversation last week, I had one of those "duh" moments that can make way for a thought. I'm still working on the thought -- and hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me with it -- but I can share the "duh."
A colleague and I were discussing some programs at our respective campuses in which students often leave before graduating because they find work in the field quickly and don't see the point of staying. We lamented that what the student considers success -- finding a well-paying job -- shows up in our graduation rate as failure, and we started with some of the usual proposals about short-term certificates.
We then turned to a discussion of student completion generally, and the literature on it. Some of the literature focuses on a sense of "belonging" to the college specifically and in college generally. Helping students feel like they belong can pay off in greater rates of retention and completion.
And that's when the "duh" moment hit me. What if we're applying "belonging" to the wrong thing?
Community colleges aren't generally considered "destinations" in the same sense that exclusive four-year places are. That's partly a function of openness, but largely a function of time. Relatively few community college students come in defining the associate's degree as the destination. Generally, they either want something quicker -- get me a job and I'm outta here -- or something longer, involving eventual transfer. If they're planning on a bachelor's or higher, the community college isn't a destination; it's more of a pathway or a stopover. (Admittedly, some states allow community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in select fields. I'm in a state that doesn't yet.)
To the extent that community colleges are bridges or pathways, the language of "belonging" is an awkward fit. It also creates a frustrating reality when policymakers look at wage data: a student who started at a community college and then transferred for a bachelor's and completed it shows up as a bachelor's graduate, and the wage gains are attributed exclusively to the four-year school. That, despite the fact that nearly half of the bachelor's degree grads in the country have community college credits in their degrees. The lack of attribution plays out in very different levels of public funding per student, and even sometimes in alumni giving.
But what if, on the front end, we encouraged students to focus on a sense of belonging not to the institution, but to the future profession?
We already do that with pre-med (or nursing) students. No matter where you go, they're uncommonly driven, and that's because they identify strongly with the future profession. They know what they want, and they're unapologetic about using colleges as tools for getting what they want. At my own campus, I see something similar in the automotive tech and culinary programs. Students who take automotive tech know what they want; if they're able to get what they want after a year of courses, rather than needing to wait two years for a degree, well, that's what most of them will do. And I can't blame them.
But in most programs, we're chary of identifying programs with career goals. What if we weren't?
I don't think it's a coincidence that attrition rates at most community colleges are highest in the "undeclared" or "liberal arts transfer" majors. Those are where students who don't know what else to do are steered. And that makes sense; to the extent that those majors cover the gen ed classes likely to be found anywhere, they can allow undecided students to make headway even while still making up their minds about what they want. When it works, it's great. But it's almost perfectly designed not to. Students who don't know what they want are unlikely to discover it while checking off boxes. They're likelier to figure it out when they're immersed in the meat of a major. Until then, they're mostly guessing. Judging by attrition rates, many of them aren't guessing very well.
I can understand the reluctance to identify majors too closely with career paths. At a basic level, it risks reducing education to training. But the objection strikes me as partly manageable and partly misplaced. It's only education if they show up. If they walk away because they don't see the point, it's nothing at all. And to the extent that students have a clear goal, it's not that difficult to build in true educational moments. Even at DeVry -- which was unapologetically vocational -- I was able to sell students on the utility of a debate course. I just pointed out that they're likely to confront situations in which they need to try to convince a skeptical boss to spend money on something; if they can marshal evidence in service of an argument, they're likelier to win, and even if they lose, they'll make themselves look good. "Soft skills" matter on the job, and there's no shame in saying so.
Better, being upfront about career matching and identification may force some badly needed campus conversations about which areas to grow and which to shrink, drift, or close. If the careers for which a given program prepares students are largely unavailable in the local area, or obsolete, then we need to ask some hard questions. I don't plan on building any new darkrooms soon, and I'd question anyone who would. As a colleague of mine pointed out, AI is likely to do to truck driving in the next few years what craigslist did to print journalism over the last decade. I don't want to prepare students for the jobs of the past.
Making the shift in "belonging" would require a pretty radical rethinking of career services and academic advising on most campuses. It would take some doing. But it would have the benefit of meeting students' needs in a way that they can and will understand. Over time, that will pay off in the internal measures that we prefer. We just have to be patient in the meantime.
Wise and worldly readers, does this sound right to you? I'm not at all sure about the mechanisms, but the general direction seems like it might fit our students better than pretending to be something we're not. What do you think?