Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Flexibility, Failure, and Stop-and-Start Success

What if a student fails?

Tressie McMillan Cottom has raised a serious point about second chances in American higher education.  As she put it:

One of the rarely discussed consequences of the high cost of college for some students is that debt can effectively calcify a system whose flexibility is a strength.

Students who drop out of expensive institutions often leave with substantial loan balances.  Some of them subsequently default on those loans, since job options without a degree in this economy often don’t pay terribly well when they exist at all.  When they try to return to college -- as the American system supposedly allows -- they can’t, since they’re carrying loan defaults.  The recent spike in student costs is actually starting to defeat the openness of the system.

For students who go straight through and complete a degree on the first try, this is a non-issue.  That means it tends to be a non-issue among the elites.  But among working class people -- especially those who attend private or for-profit colleges, where they’re charged “retail” tuition -- it’s a real issue.  

Staying on the straight and narrow is tougher if you bring the baggage of life with you.  Students who have kids, who have jobs, who have family obligations, and who have academic deficits often have to stop out and come back.  That’s getting harder as costs increase much more quickly than entry-level wages.

Historically, community colleges have been the first, best option for students with life baggage.  But even that option is becoming more problematic in some ways.  To cope with state funding cuts, community colleges have had to raise prices even more quickly, in percentage terms, than their private counterparts for the last several years.  Admittedly, that’s not too much of an issue for students who get Pell grants, but it can be an issue for adults working their way through.  

Now, to make matters more complicated, community college operating support is coming to be based more on completion rates.  The porousness that once represented flexibility is now interpreted to imply failure.  The “right to fail” has been supplanted by the “completion agenda.”

There’s a valid argument for that.  To the extent that student failure reflects poor institutional practices, then fixing those practices -- whether overly long developmental sequences, kafkaesque registration procedures, or even basic scheduling -- is well and good.  

But as community colleges start to move in the direction of maximizing completion -- typically defined as uninterrupted completion in a relatively short time -- they could easily start to enact some of the same casual barriers as their private counterparts.  

The most promising innovations I’ve seen in this area have come from rephrasing the question.  Student completion is important, but completion of what, exactly?  The hot new term is “stackable,” which refers to credit-bearing certificates that can stand on their own as vocational credentials, but which can also count towards degrees.  The CNA certification that leads to employment but also counts towards a Nursing degree is an example.  We have stackable certificates in a host of fields, including allied health, computer information systems, and hospitality, among others.  The idea is that students will need off-ramps and on-ramps, but that the students and the college are both better off if each stop-out point allows the student to leave with something to show for it.  A Nursing dropout is one thing; a Certified Nursing Assistant is something else.  Improve employability during the stopouts, and you improve the chances of the student returning.  And if she doesn’t return, at least she’s better off than she was before she got here.  

In a sense, the porousness that used to characterize entire degree programs is being replaced by a sort of modularization.  If students will bounce between college and work for reasons of their own, then let’s build programs that allow for partial successes along the way.  Make the work for which they leave a little better.  

That’s easier in some fields than others, of course.  (It doesn’t work terribly well in the liberal arts, in my observation.)  And it raises a host of both operational and perceptual issues.  For example, if financial aid is capped at 150 percent of “normative” time for a program, and you’re in a stackable program, are we looking at 150 percent of the total program or 150 percent of the first certificate?  But that strikes me as the sort of issue that could be solved if we, as a sector, really wanted to.

Cottom is right that the cost of failure is higher than it once was.  So maybe community colleges can step in by offering new visions of stop-and-start success.  Flexibility should be a virtue, and serving people who have some life baggage is an important and honorable mission.  We may just have to think about flexibility in a new way.