Monday, May 08, 2006

A Small, But Positive, Change

According to IHE, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and UVA are both expanding their recruitment of community college graduates. While the local cc’s are presumably elated, the predictable hand-wringing about watering-down has already started.

I could gloat, but honestly compels me to admit that this story is much less earth-shattering than it looks at first blush. It’s a positive development, but it’s hardly ‘man bites dog.’

The positives here are twofold: very talented cc grads will get the shot they deserve, and data trumped mystique in executive decisionmaking. I don’t see a downside to either of those.

The data that both universities looked at indicated that cc grads who transfer in graduate at the same rates (sometimes slightly higher) than ‘native’ students. Nothing succeeds like success, so the argument for gatekeeping looks a bit silly when the data contradicts it. (My cc did a similar study in reverse, and found that our grads who transfer actually outperform ‘native’ students at the public four-year colleges in our state.)

Rather than asking whether students who can be just as successful should have the same chance, which strikes me as a no-brainer, the right question is why students who spent their freshman and sophomore years at flagship state universities are no more successful than local cc grads.

I’ll divide the answer into two parts: why the flagship state students aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and why cc grads are no worse than their flagship state counterparts.

First, the flagship state students. Why are they less successful than we might expect, given the fairly intense competition to get in?

Let’s see – 18 and 19 year olds, first time away from home, fresh out of high school, huge anonymous classes, lots of teaching assistants and/or adjuncts, the travails of dorm living, fulfilling distribution requirements with courses they really don’t want to take, no clue what they want to do when they grow up and very little serious academic or career advisement to be had. Nope, no clue.

Then, the cc grads. Why are they just as good, if they weren’t pre-screened by a selective Admissions office?

The key word is “grads.” Students who graduate with an associate’s degree are, pretty much by definition, survivors. Yes, cc’s generally have much higher attrition rates than selective colleges. Some of that reflects open-door admissions; some of it reflects different goals the students have; some the more-challenging life circumstances that cc students often face, which is why they chose a cc in the first place. Grads, though, are the ones that didn’t drop out. They’re the ones who were able, for whatever reason, to get their stuff together and keep it together long enough to complete a degree program.

The grads who apply to transfer tend to be the best of the already-smallish bunch that graduates at all. These are often the kids who had the talent and drive to go elsewhere, but whose family circumstances (whether financial or otherwise) made that impractical. In some cases, they’re just late bloomers; in others, they may have had to work through some personal issues before they could focus seriously on their studies. The key point is that these students proved, over two or more years at a cc, that they were capable of performing academically at a high level.

In other words, the best cc students match up pretty well with the average flagship state students. This seems about right to me. Our average student may be weaker, but our transferring grads are better than our average. Since most student attrition happens in the first year of college, those who graduate from a cc have already made it through the most dangerous year. In effect, we offer a second sift through the applicant pile, highlighting a few hidden gems who were missed the first time. Nothing wrong with that.

Hooray that UVA and UWM based a decision on reality, rather than snob appeal. But I don’t foresee the floodgates opening. This is a wise move that will probably have a positive, though notably small, impact. The cohort for whom it’s relevant is smaller than partisans on either side of the issue seem to imagine.