Sunday, July 16, 2017


Suggestions for Research

Last week I had a conversation with someone who’s in the early stages of an Ed.D. program.  He was looking for topics on which research might prove useful to practitioners at community colleges.

It got me thinking.

My own dissertation was in a field unrelated to higher ed, and has proved useful to exactly nobody.  So if I can prevent others from making the same mistake I made, it seems like it’s worth doing.  Besides, from my practitioner perspective, there’s stuff I’d like to know that would help me help the college be more effective.  And I suspect I’m not alone in that.

A few opening disclaimers: first, whatever else you do, scan the CCRC website.  It’s an extraordinary resource for practitioners.  Second, I’m not claiming encyclopedic knowledge of everything that has ever been published in the study of higher education.  Although I like to take part in those discussions, my day job involves being the chief academic officer for a community college of approximately 13,000 students.  That, plus parenting, takes time.  Finally, when I say “useful,” I’m assuming a given context.  I’m not terribly interested in innovations that could work if only we had twice the budget we have now, nor am I terribly interested in micro-solutions that don’t scale above twenty people.  If I have to posit a parallel universe for the idea to work, well, it’s not happening.

That said, some new research on the following could be valuable.

ESL. The last several years have seen a welcome explosion of research on developmental or remedial coursework in math and English.  Student success courses have also received thoughtful attention.  But ESL has largely flown below the radar.  English as a Second Language (which goes by several different names) is the umbrella for courses designed to help people whose first language isn’t English to learn English.  Depending on location, the percentage of students with ESL needs can be trivial or it can be significant.  

ESL isn’t really remediation as traditionally conceived.  Remediation assumes the student has been exposed to the material before.  That may or may not be the case with ESL.  The category also doesn’t fit neatly into existing financial aid policies.  Financial aid is for “degree-seeking students,” but ESL students often have mixed and overlapping goals.  

We know that “contextualized” ESL works better than standalone.  That refers to embedding the instruction in a given occupational field while also teaching that field.  But what are the best practices for students who want to move on to an academic degree?  Given institutional imperatives to focus on graduation rates, what are realistic timelines for ESL students?  And what are the best ways to maximize access to financial aid without running afoul of the rules?

Reverse Transfer.  We have very good data on “upward” transfer, or community college students transferring to four-year schools.  But we don’t have great data on students who start at four-year schools and then transfer to community colleges.  It’s a large demographic, but it’s mostly ignored.  These students generally don’t need much or any remediation, and they don’t show up in IPEDS reports because they aren’t “first-time.”  What kind of orientation or student success course works best for reverse transfer students?  How are their needs (or responses to interventions) materially different from those of other students?  Are there needs unique to this population?

Men.  I don’t think of men as terribly mysterious, but from an institutional perspective, men over the age of 22 absolutely are.  Among students within the first few years of graduating high school, the gender split at most community colleges is pretty even.  But among students age 22 and up, the student body tilts female by a large margin.  Above that age, women are far likelier to come back to college than men are.  Some of that is probably due to different incarceration rates, and some to the relatively greater availability of well-paying jobs to men without degrees, but there’s still a significant population of men in their twenties and older who are economically marginal and who could benefit materially from more education and/or training.  

How do we reach the disaffected 25 year old guy?  What would draw him in, and what would help him see a program through to completion?  

In previous generations, this would have been the “blue collar aristocracy,” working unionized industrial jobs at good wages, but that option is less available than it used to be.  

For community colleges with declining enrollments, disaffected adult men represent a potential market.  For communities, we know that men who suddenly have good incomes often move quickly from boyfriend material to husband material, with all of the ripple effects on the community that implies.

If we could figure this one out, it would be a game-changer.

Budget Cuts.  This one’s painful, but potentially helpful.  Let’s say you’re faced with having to cut a non-trivial amount from a college’s operating budget.  Which cuts do the least damage?  Which ones do the most?  I’ve heard answers based on self-interest, intuition, and ideology, but I don’t know that I’ve heard one based on empirical study.  Admittedly, this is nobody’s favorite topic, but if we have perform budgetary amputations, I’d rather do them with the lights on.  Anyone who could shed light here would make a real contribution.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?  Alternately, are there resources out there that already address these in useful ways?

Your posting prompted an off-the-wall idea: would both sides benefit if students taking Spanish were paired up with ESL students who speak Spanish? Probably wouldn't work, but what if it were done in the context of a vocabulary/grammar study center?

I would like to see more studies about advising, but with a focus on implementation. How well does a new "high impact" practice perform when installed at a new place, and why? How long does it take for the new practice to pay off? Can it survive a change in administration? What are the costs and benefits?

I like your reverse transfer idea, but it would require a lot of care at the design stage. We have reverse transfer students who only take a few classes, and not just in the summer. (In my experience, they are students who put off a Soph-level class and now can't schedule it at their own university to fit with their upper-level classes.) We identify those as transient students, but they aren't actually coded that way. A study needs to focus on students who transfer with around 30 credits with "a lot" of failing grades. The tricky part is that "a lot" is in the eye of the university beholder and they usually aren't below a 2.0. They just exceed some threshold that varies from school to school. If you can figure out how to collect the correct population, this could be extremely valuable. What is their success rate? How does that depend on their mindset about the challenge level of classes at a community college? (You can guess that I have my collection of anecdotes about that.)

The one about budget cuts would be interesting if it was possible to set up a case control pairing colleges with similar situations. I fear that would be a challenge.

Now about a study of administrative bloat? We are getting smaller (and have a smaller budget) but our non-teaching professional staff and administration is getting bigger. Because that would be about a time series for a given institution rather than a cross-sector comparison, it might have a better chance of making sense.
Yesterday's IHE news got me thinking about both budget cuts, administrative bloat, and the decline and fall of the "nothing special" small private liberal arts college.

The people who got RIFed for speaking out might be the lucky ones: get out now while the getting is good, because the angry remaining faculty are unlikely to cultivate retention, happiness, and light for the tiny incoming class of students, and it is unclear how their MA program in creative writing will do without the leader of that program! How long will this one last after that management decision?

But that college has something most do not: Squaw Valley practically in its backyard and a ski team (and other prep school favorites like lacrosse) to bring in paying students. Maybe they don't need any classes at their college as long as the large fraction of their student body participating in intercollegiate athletics doesn't need large discounts to draw them in.

And the combination of a large (and likely expensive, since they must have to travel a long ways to compete) sports program is something they share with Bethune-Cookman. I don't know if Burlington College had sports in conjunction with a poor decision about borrowing a lot of money, but that combination might make it and Bethune-Cookman good candidates for a study of college management and Board oversight.
Hi, first, thank you for these thoughtful insights. It was interesting to hear them from an administrative perspective and especially from someone who used to have a more disciplinary perspective prior to taking on this role.

I was most interested in your comments about ESL. Coming from a background in Applied Linguistics and Composition I have taken many of my thoughts about ESL course work from Ilona Leki, Rebecca Leonard, Paul Matsuda and Suresh Canagarjah. What I have found since I started teaching multilingual (MTL) students and have kept in touch with colleagues at other institutions, is that one specific approach cannot work in each and every context. For instance, at my community college the demographic that we serve come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, generally speaking and writing in a localized variety of English that was learned either as an additional language or along side their dominant language while growing up. Either way, the English they have to learn for college in the US is different and that distinction must always be made. And, really, no one speaks standardized English (Academic or edited English) as a first language, right?

Since learning how to use and edit it for more formal contexts is so challenging for these students, I like the idea of promoting academic genres from the beginning. This is where the research comes in for me. I have proposed to look at the retention rates of students over a three year period after having been exposed to the academic genres they will be asked to demonstrate early in their academic career. When I say early here, I mean as soon as they enter into their "ESL" writing courses. Often in the English disciplines we teach genres that do not always translate well across the disciplines. For those who speak English as their dominant language, the shift from rhetorical argument to lab report might be easy, but it's not the same for those who don't speak English as a dominant language and who have not been exposed to the spatial or formal features of the writing. I think it's also important to say that these genres should come from the disciplines at the college where the students are, these should be collected from faculty across disciplines and should not be the only writing students do, as I still think narrative and argument are important, too.
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