Sunday, February 10, 2013


The last time I wrote about Sandy Shugart, I gave him a bit of a hard time.  Based on his essay last week, I regret that.  It’s a wonderful piece, well worth reading.

It’s about the “completion agenda,” and the useful and destructive ways that it can be interpreted.  Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College in Florida, points out correctly that reifying “completion” as a goal in itself sort of misses the point; the point is to produce students who are capable of learning at a high level.  If we produce highly capable students, the rest will take care of itself, assuming we don’t go out of our way to mess things up.

I’m a bit less sanguine about the whole “take care of itself” piece, probably because I’m very aware of certain basic structural issues..  But what really sold me on the piece was Shugart’s recommendation that we stop looking at individual institutions, in judging performance, and start looking at higher education as an ecosystem.  After all, that’s how most students experience it.

To take the easiest case, community colleges have significant numbers of students who are degree seeking, but for whom the degree sought is a bachelor’s.  So they do a semester or a year at the community college to save money and gather momentum, and then transfer.  As far as our graduation numbers go, those students count as dropouts, even though they got exactly what they came for.  (To add insult to injury, they don’t count in the graduation percentages at their destination schools, either.)  

At this point, the ‘typical’ bachelor’s degree student has accumulated credits at more than one college.  Some level of transfer is the norm.  And since students generally don’t have to complete an associate’s before transferring, many don’t.  (Online degree completion programs are likely to accelerate this trend.)  To hold that against the community college strikes me as a counting error, rather than any real indicator of performance.

(I disagree with Shugart that the answer is to require an associate’s degree before transfer.  That seems needlessly paternalistic.  I’d rather see measures that consider the reality of how students actually behave, and then let students follow the paths they choose.  If they want to do a year at a cc and then move on for a bachelor’s, I have no principled argument why they shouldn’t be allowed to do exactly that.  If the student achieved her own objective, give the community college the credit it’s due.)

Shugart argues further that we should only judge college completion rates when the students in question arrive college-ready.  I can’t agree -- it feels too much like an abdication of mission -- but it’s certainly true that it’s more difficult to get a student who arrives with eighth-grade reading skills through a college level program.  

A few years ago I saw Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, argue that if a community college takes someone with an elementary school reading level and gets her to, say, ninth grade reading, that the progress should be seen as a meaningful success.  There’s real truth in that.  I think that what Shugart was getting at in his reference to “value added.”  Did the student leave stronger than she arrived?  If so, that should count for something.

But crediting that requires thinking about higher education in a different way.  Historically, we’ve viewed higher education as a credentialing device, with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees comprising the focus for undergraduate education.  Credentials matter, obviously, but the idea that everyone should fit into one of two categories is getting harder to sustain.  People’s needs are much more varied than that.  Serving those varied needs well requires moving beyond simple, reductionist measures.

That’s one reason I’m happy to see the discussions around PARCC start to get momentum.  Though far from perfect, PARCC at least recognizes that it’s silly and self-defeating to separate a college completion agenda from a serious look at the K-12 system.  Many of the states that berate community colleges for teaching all those developmental classes only require two years of math in high school.  If we’re serious about improving student success in higher education, we need to see it as part of the same universe as primary and secondary education.  From a student’s perspective, it absolutely is.

My guess is that in the coming years, we’ll move from a “many paths to one goal” model to a “many paths to many goals” model.  The transition will be halting and messy, with some false starts along the way, but the net change should be positive.  Students’ needs are more diverse than one or two degree categories can, or should, cover.  If we want to meet those diverse needs, then we’ll need a much more varied and robust set of measures based on ways that actual students actually behave.