Friday, March 20, 2009

After Transfer

A few months ago I mentioned a conversation with a contact at a respected private university who mentioned that her U only takes small numbers of cc grads in transfer because they've found that transfer students don't make the same level of donations as alums as 'native' students. The U doesn't like the impact on its fundraising, so it only takes enough transfer students to round out some upper-level classes. Anything beyond that it considers lost income.

Now comes a national report that claims that cc grads who transfer to four-year colleges and then graduate those make lower salaries, in the aggregate, than do students who start at those four-year colleges. The study apparently controlled for family income, age, and several other demographic variables, so this isn't just a function of comparing apples and oranges.

I have to admit finding this study disturbing. My first reaction is to want to know more about the various factors, to see if there's something we can and/or should address.

In the aggregate, community college grads are likelier to stay in the geographic area of their college. That may speak to occupational choice, though it may also speak to priorities. If staying in a given area is a priority, that may come at a cost of missed opportunities. If cc's tend to attract a more place-bound or place-loyal student body, I'd expect to see some aggregate impact of that. At my SLAC, students came from all over the country and beyond, and dispersed similarly upon graduation. The idea was to chase the best opportunities, wherever they happened to be. At my cc, that's not generally the pattern. We recruit mostly locally, and most of our grads remain local. We use that fact in pressing the case for state funding, since we can claim truthfully that the benefits of our services accrue locally. But it stands to reason that place-loyalty carries opportunity costs.

The academic in me also chafes a little at 'starting salaries' being taken as measures of educational quality. Academics as a group tend to be pretty well-educated – it's kinda what we do – but our pay scale doesn't match what you'd expect for that level of training. Good social workers make less than average pharmaceutical sales reps; does that mean our human services program isn't very good? There's a mismatch in the measure that needs to be acknowledged.

All of that given, though, I still can't help but wonder if there's a deeper issue. Do employers hold transfer status against graduates? If they do, do they have good reasons? And if they don't, then what? From whence does the difference come?

When I went from my pretty good public high school to the SLAC, the first semester was a bloodbath. It wasn't that I spent all my time partying – the 'nerd' tendencies were way too strong for that – but that the bar had been raised in a way that I hadn't seen before. It took me a semester to make the adjustment. Something similar happened when I went to grad school, and in my first semester became the punching bag for an especially brilliant professor who decided that I embodied a set of assumptions to which he took particular exception.

Those were both brutal experiences, and I still shudder involuntarily when I think about them. But they've served me well in certain ways. Most basically, I learned that I could be humbled intellectually, and still live to tell the tale. Simply put, I learned how to take a punch. This comes in handy in dealing with some faculty who like to try to use intellectual intimidation as a bullying technique. Once you've been beaten up by Mike Tyson, some street punk doesn't faze you in the slightest.

For the higher-achieving cc student, if there isn't a robust Honors or similar program at the cc, there may be a certain lack of sustained challenge. While that can lead to some eye-popping GPA's, it still shortchanges them in important ways. Being the tallest building in Topeka is fine if you never leave Topeka, but once you get to New York, the rules are different. I worry about the kid who has been the tallest building in Topeka all his life. He may be in for a rude shock.

Or not. The 'community college penalty' may be employer class bias, plain and simple. I'm not sure how to measure that, but it's certainly disturbing.

Wise and worldly readers, how might you design a question to discern whether the penalty is a reflection of actual ability or an artifact of prejudice? And if it's at least partially 'real,' what can we do about it?