Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Differences in the Two-Year Sector

There's a nifty piece (and discussion) in yesterday's IHE about a new classification system adopted by the Education Department to distinguish two-year schools from each other. It's worth checking out.

A few responses, acknowledging that there's far more there than I'm responding to:

First, hooray. Community colleges will differ as communities differ; this is to be expected. A cc in an affluent suburban area will probably have different patterns of student demand than one in a struggling city. Acknowledging that can get us past some pretty unproductive conversations.

Second, since nearly half of all college students in the United States attend cc's, it's heartening to see the sector get some actual attention.

The most provocative part of the article, though, came at the very end, where it cited Ed Department data showing higher degree-completion rates for students at for-profit two-year schools than at traditional cc's. Much of the discussion at the IHE site tried to explain that, or to explain it away.

I'll take a shot, having worked as a dean in both a proprietary college and a cc.

At a really basic level, there's a difference of mission. Every proprietary college I've seen has a relatively narrow specialization. Most of them offer relatively little choice of major, and the choices they do offer tend to be in closely related areas. You don't go to a proprietary to find yourself, or to try out different majors to see how they fit; you go to find a job in a given industry. CC's, by contrast, try to be comprehensive, and are often launching pads for students who haven't quite found their niches yet. If we assume that students who know their goals are likelier to complete than students who don't, then the for-profits have an advantage right from the start.

(Based on bitter experience, though, I'll add that specialization can be a double-edged sword. The proprietary at which I worked rode the 90's tech wave up, then rode it down. The crash hurt badly, since it didn't have non-technical majors to cushion the blow.)

For-profits are famously market-sensitive, and, in my experience, generally allergic to tenure and/or faculty unions. While that can be both good and bad, it certainly makes it easier to shut down programs that aren't carrying their weight anymore, and to shift resources to new ones. Faster response to changing market conditions means that what students are confronting at any given time is a fairly current roster of options. A quicker trigger finger on marginal programs frees up more resources for growing ones. (The downside, of course, is that management can get too trigger-happy, and trap everybody in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve, always changing programs before the folks in the trenches have the chance to get good at them. What can look 'nimble' in one context can look 'capricious' in another.)

I also wonder about the impact of the academic calendar. Most non-profit higher ed, as far as I've seen, still sticks with some variation on two-semesters-on (or three trimesters on), and summers off. Summer courses are scheduled separately from Fall and Spring, with the assumption that most degree-seeking students will either go away during the summer, or at least scale back considerably.

At PU, the teaching calendar ran twelve months, full steam. There was no light season. A student could complete eight semesters in slightly less than three years (8/3, for those keeping score at home), or four semesters in just over one (4/3). It was absolutely brutal on the faculty, but there was a real selling point for students in being able to say that you'll get out a year earlier than you otherwise would. For students whose primary focus was vocational, rather than philosophical, 'getting it over with' held a powerful appeal.

This is especially true, I think, for students with children. Time spent in class, and doing classwork, is time taken away from some other, very compelling, demand. Knocking a year off that looks pretty good to some folks. But the only way to get that extra year is to stick with the program to completion.

(Yes, it can sometimes be done at cc's, but it takes extra effort and some luck. At PU, it was the default setting.)

There's also the issue of teaching quality. If a professor went off the rails at PU, it wasn't all that hard to fire him. (They were “at will” employees.) At my cc, where he has both tenure and a union, good luck with that. I tend to think the overall impact of this is small, since very few established professors are that bad, but I'd put the number above zero. (The obvious flip side is that at PU, there wasn't much to stop a stupid management decision. Sometimes gridlock is actually the lesser evil.) That said, recruiting good faculty was sometimes harder at PU, since the job was more draining than at just about any other place.

CC's are dramatically cheaper, but the proprietaries are very good at bundling financial aid so the students don't really see the difference upfront. By the time the difference is painfully clear – when the loan deferments run out – the damage is done.

“Intrusive advisement” was the coin of the realm at PU, where faculty were expected to track student attendance religiously, to issue all manner of attendance warnings, and to do everything possible to save every student they possibly could. I was never comfortable with that, and grew less so as the reins got tighter, but some people respond to it.

To my mind, there's a real opportunity here to take from the best of each. Avoid the Scylla of “at will” and the Charybdis of tenure with renewable multi-year contracts. Make accelerated degree completion easier by running a more robust summer program, but recognize faculty burnout by staggering semesters off. I suspect that many cc's would be well-advised to take another look at the “comprehensive” ideal, even if only in modest ways. And for the love of all that is good, don't be shy about educating students about the real cost of tuition. CC's are legitimately cheaper – use that!

But that's for another day. Hooray that cc's are finally starting to attract some of the nuanced attention historically reserved for their four-year brethren.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?