Tuesday, August 21, 2007


In an unrelated discussion with the registrar at my cc, I learned that her previous college – a respectable-but-not-elite four-year private college – wouldn't give credit for college courses taught at a high school.

“Dual enrollment” courses are a popular way for cc's to pick up enrollments of some students who might otherwise skip us altogether. Essentially, they're cc courses taught at local high schools. They follow the cc curriculum, use the same textbooks and syllabi, and are held to the same grading standards. They receive transcripted credit that typically counts for both high school and college, which explains the 'dual' part of dual enrollment. They give high-achieving high school students a chance to see what college level courses are like while still living at home.

I see a lot of upside to dual enrollment. It can help fight off 'senioritis' in high-achieving high school students. It makes college courses accessible to students who can't afford cars. It gives the students a taste of what's to come, the better to avoid the dreaded freshman wake-up call.

But according to some colleges (though not my own), a college course taught at a high school isn't a college course. The reasoning, apparently, is that the other students in the class aren't college students.


An alert reader sent me* a link to a post at the Freakonomics blog at which a well-meaning writer made the point that the difference between teaching at an elite college and teaching at a cc is that the content actually matters at the cc. According to the author, the students at the elite college are inherently equipped for success anyway, so the coursework is largely beside the point. They're busy networking with each other at keggers. The Admissions office pre-screens, so the professors don't have to. At the cc's, the students don't have those contacts, and networking with each other won't have the same payoff, so for them, the quality of instruction actually matters.

It struck me as much the same point, if with the goalposts moved.

There's some truth to this. When I was in junior high, my Mom moved my brother and me to a different and much more competitive school district. Academically, I went from 'always standing out' to 'one of many.' When I went to my Snooty Liberal Arts College, I spent my first semester getting my ass handed to me over and over again. It took several months for me to step up my game to the level of my new peers. In each case, an initial humbling was followed, eventually, by greater effort. The long-term effect, I think, was generally good, even if it was sometimes a bumpy ride.

One of the uncomfortable truths of education in America is that educational outcomes track incredibly cleanly with the socio-economic class level of the students. To get a distressingly frank assessment of this, talk to a Realtor. When you buy into a 'good' school district, you aren't buying into better teaching; you're buying into better peers. The same is true of 'exclusive' colleges and universities. The point of a Princeton degree is that not everybody gets one. The implications for an open-admissions college, I think, are clear.

Although the narrow mission of a typical cc – teach the first two years of college, and don't focus on anything after that, or on research – can (and does) allow for the benefits of specialization, the open-door mission means that most of the time, the academic quality (and/or family income) of peers will be scattershot. Some cc's have Honors programs to mitigate the problem, and I support that wholeheartedly, but there are real limits to even an Honors program in a commuter environment. We can try to improve the peer pool by attracting more high-achieving students; some states have even formalized this with scholarship programs, if with mixed results. But at the end of the day, we can't sell exclusivity. It's not our mission. As long as 'caliber of peers' is part of what high-end schools can sell, we'll be at a handicap.

On a day-to-day level, I don't worry too much about this. My job is to ensure the best educational environment possible for the students who are here, within the resources the voters are willing to provide. (And yes, my job would be easier if the voters would provide more.) And in a perverse way, cc's are reaping some benefit from the absurd escalation of tuition elsewhere – the average age of our students is actually dropping, as we're getting more 18-year-olds who could have gone elsewhere but didn't want (or whose parents didn't want) to pay the premium. As our student body captures more high-achievers, the caliber of classroom interaction slowly improves, to the benefit of all.

But there's a frustrating circularity to the argument from exclusivity. No matter how well our professors (or the dual enrollment teachers) teach, there's still a 'not quite' that some will attach. We can do only what we can do. No matter how well we teach, or how indifferently some of the senior research machines at R1's teach, they'll have a cachet that we just won't. I just hope we do a good enough job that our graduates can eventually make up the difference.

*FYI, I've moved my email. I can be reached at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. Please direct any “Ask the Administrator” queries there.