Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The NY Times had a section on Sunday dealing with community colleges. Much of it was fairly predictable stuff: returning students struggling to get vocational degrees, underprepared students struggling to get through remediation, that sort of thing.

But there was a nifty statistic buried in one of the articles. (I'm way too tired to dig out the link.) Apparently, over the last decade or so, the average age of students at cc's nationally has been dropping. (That has been true at my cc as well, but it's nice to get confirmation that the trend isn't just local.) This, in contrast to the average student age at four-year public colleges, which (I think) is either steady or climbing.

We're starting to get more of the traditional-age students who could have chosen to go elsewhere. This is almost certainly a function of economics. Since the first two years of most programs are devoted mostly to (transferable) general education requirements anyway, why not get those credits at dramatically lower cost?

One result of that shift is that some cc's that have historically focused exclusively or very strongly on vocational education are starting to ramp up their transfer programs. We're in the weird position of shrinking some workforce development stuff to make room for arts and sciences.

This strikes me as a welcome development on several levels.

From a public service perspective, obviously, it's great to be able to help a generation of students cope with (by partially dodging) dramatic tuition increases at four-year schools. A little competition isn't always a bad thing.

We don't really interfere with the 'sorting' function of admissions, since cc grads who transfer do just as well academically (if not better than) as 'native' four-year students. If anything, we provide a second level of sorting, one based on performance more than 'potential.'

We may offset some of the losses in faculty hiring at the four-year schools.

And to the extent that we improve our game in the traditional disciplines, we may overcome some of the stigma that still attaches to this sector. That can only help the students who actually can't afford to go elsewhere.

The truth of this hit me earlier this week, when I realized that I was making an argument for another full-time philosophy hire, and doing it almost entirely on financial grounds. Since philosophy is a chalk-and-talk discipline, and the classes usually run in the twenties or low thirties, it's a profit center. As opposed to the more vocational fields, which have more cyclical demand, smaller classes, more competition for instructors, and higher equipment costs. Normally, classical disciplines are seen as victims of bottom-line thinking. We may need to rethink that mental shortcut.

As the midtier four-year colleges are hollowing themselves out and becoming more like cc's, it may be that some cc's are beefing up academically and becoming more like four-year colleges. (In some states, cc's have actually started offering four-year degrees. If any readers are in one of those states and can speak to how well that works, please do so in the comments. I'm especially fuzzy on how it impacts faculty workloads, in terms of research expectations.)

I usually agree with Brad DeLong's lament -- “why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?” -- so it was nice to see something both accurate and thought-provoking in the Times. Hope springs eternal.