Thursday, December 01, 2011

Too Many Daves

Meet Dave. Dave doesn’t exist, but his real-life counterparts do.

Dave was, well, let’s say a “casual” student in high school. He got through, but his efforts could be fairly described as uninspired. When he graduated, he had a sense that college came next, though his concept of college mostly involved beer, girls, and sleeping late. Dave’s long-suffering parents agreed that college comes next, but didn’t see much point in paying big bucks to send Dave off to Compass Direction State or St. Somebody-Or-Other, given the palpable risk that a hangdog Dave would drink his way through a failing semester and wind up back at their doorstep bearing nothing but student loan payments and a lot of laundry.

So Dave’s parents struck a deal with him. They let him live at home rent-free and helped him attend the local community college for a year, mostly taking gen eds. In return, the agreement went, Dave had to do reasonably well academically and show that he was taking college fairly seriously. If Dave got a solid year under his belt at the community college, they agreed, then his parents would foot the bill to send him where he really wanted to go for his sophomore year. Dave spent a year at the cc, did reasonably well, transferred to Compass Direction State, and lived happily ever after.

Dave showed up in our statistics as attrition. As far as the government was concerned, he dropped out of the community college, and the only possible explanation is that the community college didn’t do a good enough job. Perhaps some funding cuts will bring focus!


We have a lot of Daves. And we pay a political price for it.

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story. Apparently, the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success will recommend to Secretary Duncan that community colleges’ “graduation” rates should be recalculated as “graduation and transfer” rates. We’ll finally start receiving due credit for all the Daves who spend time here on the way to graduating from other places.

Yes, yes, yes. If we’re going to base funding decisions on institutional “performance,” then let’s at least measure the performance reasonably.

If you ask Dave about his experience with the community college -- I’ve done this with Dave’s real-life counterparts -- you’ll hear good things. The cc gave him an affordable chance to get his act together, and to prove to his parents that he could succeed in college. It allowed him to start out living at home, so he could get a little more maturity before jumping into the temptations of dorm life. He was happy to use it as a springboard.

The comments on the IHE story raised a few useful caveats. In the absence of a unit record system, for example, it may not be possible to get aggregate numbers on how many Daves eventually graduated from their destination schools, as opposed to how many just bounced around. And as Cliff Adelman pointed out, some students never really enrolled in any meaningful way in the first place, so counting them as attrition is really a category mistake. I’d also suggest that we need to have much more thoughtful discussions about the relevance of the graduation measure for people who enroll in ESL or developmental courses for life/work purposes, rather than for graduation purposes, but can’t get financial aid for adult basic ed.

But those can come next. For now, I’m just hoping that we stop getting punished for having too many Daves.