Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sometimes, Facts Actually Matter

A month or two ago, I got into a colloquy on the blog about average ages of community college students.

An alert reader send me an email exchange he had with the AACC on this exact question. The AACC Fast Facts page for 2009 has the following to say about average ages of cc students:

Average age: 29

21 or younger: 47%

22 to 39: 40%

Obviously, that can't be right. If 47 percent of cc students are 21 or younger, how could the 50th percentile be 29? The numbers don't make sense.

In the email exchange, Kent Phillippe, Senior Research Associate at the AACC, noted that the '29' figure is both several years behind the rest of the data, and a 'mean,' rather than a median. In other words, it's pulled upward by a small number of much older students. As he put it, the median age is “probably around 22 or 23.”

The word “probably” is revealing. It suggests that they haven't bothered to figure it out.

If the 47th percentile is 21, I'll go out on a big ol' limb and postulate that the median age is 22. This squares with the numbers at my own college, where the mean age is 25 but the median is 21.

This may seem pedantic, but it's actually kind of important.

If the public image of community colleges is based on thirty-year-olds returning to college after getting laid off, but the reality of community colleges is an increasing influx of traditional-aged students with the goal of transfer, then we'd expect to see policy interventions that don't mesh with the facts on the ground. We'd expect to see, for example, lots of federal grant programs geared towards quick-fix job training for displaced workers, when the real growth is in 18 year olds who struggled in high school math or whose parents don't have the money for Faraway State. We'd expect to see policymakers focus on short-term certificate programs, when the real need is in remedial math.


I'm not usually a fan of persnickety statistical critiques, but this strikes me as fundamental. The official public voice of community colleges in America, for reasons I personally can't fathom, is promulgating profoundly misleading data on our behalf.

It may be simple sloppiness – someone made an arbitrary data-reporting decision years ago and nobody has bothered to revisit it. It's not a very satisfying explanation, but I've been in administration long enough to know that sometimes, that's how things happen. If that's the case, I hope someone there reads this and issues some public corrections post-haste.

Or there may be some sort of PR/political calculation. If cc's present ourselves as focused mostly on retraining displaced adult workers, then we don't look like we're competing with four-year colleges. Or maybe the 'retraining' angle seems likelier to pay off in workforce development grant money. I'm all for workforce development grants, but we get far more students going through the English department than we get through all of our workforce stuff put together, and we need money for that, too.

We train, yes, but we also educate. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards the education side. That's as it should be, given that the Great Recession has hit hardest those jobs that pay well but don't require much formal education. These days, even many vocational programs require significant amounts of gen ed. The distinction is blurring, even though much funding is predicated on a clear boundary between the two. The policy assumptions are badly trailing the realities on the ground.

Locally, the demographic trends among our students show the average age going down, the racial composition getting ever less white, and the gender gap shrinking as the male population is increasing. (The students are still predominantly female, but only in the shrinking 25-and-over group. The youngsters are almost evenly split.) Although the press seemingly never tires of telling the story of the laid off 35 year old, the real growth is in young minority males taking traditional college courses. To me, this is a HUGE story, well worth telling, and an opportunity to accomplish something of historic significance. Young minority males are showing up at college in unprecedented numbers. (As I noted recently, it's raining men over at Admissions.) If we can succeed in getting those young men through college and into the land of good jobs at higher rates than we have in the past, we will have accomplished something with real impact. I just don't know why we're doing it completely below the radar, or why the AACC persists in telling a story that distracts from what's actually happening. Getting the story right could help get some of the policies right. There's too much at stake to get this wrong. Tell the truth, fix the policies, and get the resources where they're needed. If we miss this moment, we'll pay for it for decades to come.