Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two and Out

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the students who get their two-year degree here, and hope to get a job with it.

It’s just not as easy as it used to be. And I’m not just referring to the recession, though that certainly made a bad situation worse.

My college has an enviable record as a pre-transfer school, sending students on to various four-year colleges and universities where they tend to do quite well. That’s great, and I’m happy to embrace and support that side of what we do. But many students have no intention of doing that.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when that was fine. The economy was such that you could come out with a two-year degree in, say, business, and find a job. It might not be a high-end job, and you might eventually have to go back to school to move up into management, but you could start making money in relatively short order.

Now, outside of the health care area, that’s mostly untrue.

Some of our programs have adjusted by becoming de facto transfer programs. They didn’t make a conscious change, exactly, but students started beating different paths and the facts on the ground changed. Other programs have slowly withered on the vine, as students have sensed, usually accurately, that their time had passed.

But we still get significant numbers of students hoping to do two-and-out.

This piece in the Atlantic spooked me a little. It’s a long one, but worth the read. Among other things, it notes that income gains in the larger society over the last few decades have accrued almost exclusively to those with graduate degrees (and/or inherited wealth). Even four-year degrees typically won’t do the trick anymore. At that point, a standalone two-year degree starts to look a little suspect...

The dilemma of public higher ed is that we’re trying to create a middle class for a society that no longer wants one.

Yes, there’s more to education than employment. Of course that’s true. But it’s also true that student loan burdens are a lot higher than they used to be, and they’re getting harder to pay back. When students who are already on the ragged edge of economic disaster come to us hoping for a pathway out, I feel an ethical responsibility to do right by them. And outside of the health care programs and the transfer function, it’s getting harder to do that.

On campus, we haven’t really had that conversation yet in any serious way. Individual programs have looked at individual outcomes, but we haven’t had the broader discussion of just what, exactly, we should be doing. The “produce the middle class” strategy worked brilliantly in the 1960’s, when community colleges boomed, and tolerably well in the 1980’s. The college was built around that. The world has since changed, but we haven’t.

This question is really for readers who work at community colleges. Has your college had a robust, campuswide discussion of its role for students in the new world?