Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Where You Look

Is it okay to base insights about community college pedagogy research conducted in the K-12 system? How about among undergrads at selective research universities?

Most of the presentations we heard at Aspen this weekend were based on research conducted in one of those two places.  Very little was done on students at community colleges specifically.

I’m guessing that it matters.  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is 26 or so, which is a far cry from, say, the average age of a high school sophomore.  Those years matter, both in maturity and in life circumstances.  The typical community college student is attending part-time while working at least one job, and many of them have kids.  These are not 18 year olds living in dorms, for the most part.  

In the absence of much research on community college students, we’re missing a few things.

Most basically, we’re failing to capture the effects of very different life circumstances.  That was why Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price was so refreshing, and why I’m looking forward to reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed.  Both do the work of looking outside the research universities in which they were trained.  That remains the exception.  

When you do that, you notice things that often get ignored, like the direction of money flow in many low-income families, which goes from student to family.  When policies are based on the assumption that it’s always the other way around, we’ll get some basic things wrong.

Community college faculty are in incredible conditions for observing student behavior, but rarely have the time or resources to conduct and publish systematic studies.  (That’s what a double-digit annual courseload will do.). But community colleges are relatively numerous and easy to find; at last count, there were over 1100 in the US.  Any education research faculty who want to find them shouldn’t have a hard time.  Just ask the office staff.

That mostly hasn’t happened, but it could.  A researcher who shows up with some resources and a proposal that doesn’t suck would be well-received on many cc campuses; we’d be happy that someone noticed.  And given that roughly 45 percent of undergraduates in the US attend community colleges -- more than attend the entire research university sector -- it’s not exactly an obscure niche.  

So, an open invite to education researchers.  Instead of continuing to assume that cc’s are extensions of public schools, or just universities without money, how about assuming that they’re worthy subjects of research in their own right?  The CCRC is fantastic and wonderful, but it can’t do everything itself.  And I can almost guarantee there’s one within easy driving distance.