Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Open Letter to Selective Colleges

Dear Selective Colleges,

You know I’m a fan.  I’m a proud grad of one of your number, and I’m glad to report that my community college has a strong track record of sending students your way, where they’ve done markedly well.  So I’m writing this in the spirit of constructive criticism.

As you know, you guys aren’t getting any cheaper.  Community colleges aren’t either, but since we’re starting from a much lower base, the cost gap between what you charge and what we charge grows larger every year.  The very best of our students -- as you know -- come here more because of cost (or high school record) than because of a lack of ability.  The pipeline from a good community college honors program to a selective liberal arts college is a great option for the strong student who may have been underrated.  I’m glad that the pipeline has been open, and I hope to open it even more in the next few years.

That said, though, we need to talk about online classes.

Many of your number -- I won’t name names, you know who you are -- simply will not accept online courses in transfer.  This is starting to become a real problem.

In the community college world, online education is the area of rapid growth.  It’s where the students are going, and some of us are getting good at it.  It helps address the very real scheduling issues that non-traditional students bring to the table.  For something like an honors course or a special-interest 200 level course, it can help put together a critical mass of students who otherwise couldn’t all meet at the same time.  (That’s why we’ve never been able to run honors classes at night.  An online honors option could give the stronger evening students a chance to participate.)  

Innovation at community colleges faces obstacles that don’t exist at other levels.  There’s the obvious issue of funding, of course, but there’s also the question of transferability.  We can’t experiment with courses in a transfer major if the destination college won’t accept them.  

I can understand where the policy came from.  In the beginning, online courses were unproven and sometimes identified with the more vocational or opportunistic parts of higher ed.  But that’s just not true anymore.  When MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are offering classes online, it’s hard to argue that nobody reputable takes the format seriously.  Years of studies show that online learning outcomes rival those of in-class courses (and hybrids are even better).  And in some cases, it’s getting more difficult for students to avoid online courses.  For a whole host of reasons, the market is shifting.  Even very strong students take online classes.  You can tell who they are by looking at their GPA’s.

I understand that some faculty style themselves proud docents of the Way Things Were When They Were Young, and/or the Guardians of Virtue.  But too much reverence for the past means missing out on the future.  In 2012, it’s difficult to take seriously the argument that anything online must, by definition, be inferior.  As more students take online classes, holding the line against them will progressively shrink the pool from which you can draw.  Why you’d want to do that, I have no idea.

With all due respect, the ground is shifting from under you.  It’s time to shift with it.

If you can do that, I can promise that we’ll keep right on sending our annual cluster of alarmingly talented and driven students.  



Dean Dad