Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Warning to My Colleagues

I wasn’t surprised by a new study showing concrete benefits for low-income students who attend Early College High School programs.  The study used a random lottery to assign certain students to Early College programs, while keeping other, otherwise-similar students out.  Attendance in the programs is positively correlated with subsequent college enrollment and graduation.

Programs like that can do wonders for kids in difficult circumstances.  They can demystify college, making it seem real.  They can take kids out of high school settings that just don’t work for them, whether because of bullying, homophobia, or whatever other dysfunction the local high schools happen to suffer.

From experience and observation, though, I have to offer a warning to any of my colleagues who are considering establishing one.

Some of your faculty will hate it.

I say “some,” not “all,” because the sentiment isn’t universally shared.  But among those who will oppose it, statistics about success won’t matter.  Neither will appeals to social justice, testimonials from students, or solicitations of alternatives.  

They’ll take a program like that as a threat to their status as college professors.  They’ll see it as encroachment by high schools onto college territory, and feel it as an implied insult.  It will strike at the heart of a status anxiety that ultimately won’t be soothed with statistics.  You’ll know that this is the issue when you start hearing arguments about “identity.”  

It’s easy for faculty to feel embattled.  (My friend Lesboprof had a nice piece on that last month.)  Higher ed is acutely status-conscious from the outset, and community colleges don’t carry the prestige of universities or elite colleges.  Over the last several years, cc’s in most of the country have endured some pretty rough budget years, even by the standards of a sector that’s underfunded in the best of times.  Faculty have seen the move towards adjuncts, and many of them see it, with some warrant, as a devaluation of their role.  And recently, calls for higher graduation rates and more workforce development strike many liberal arts faculty as offensive; they read the former as a veiled order to lower their standards, and the latter as foreshadowing downsizing.  Taken in combination, that’s a powerful set of stressors.

When you start with a hair trigger, and then hear something about high school students coming on campus, it’s easy to read an ECHS program as an intolerable insult.  It’s a misreading, and a dangerous one, but I can see where it comes from.

In a perfect world, we could address the various stressors directly and thereby lower everybody’s blood pressure.  At that point, it would be easier to discuss the merits of a given program.  But the anxieties run deep.  Local administrations don’t have the power to undo years of state austerity.  The higher ed prestige hierarchy predates all of us, and has psychic effects far beyond anything a given dean or vp could address.  And while I absolutely agree that local administrations should be clear on rejecting grade inflation as a retention strategy, it’s simply impossible to ignore the larger social pressures to ensure the employability of graduates.  When a legislature announces point-blank that it will base allocations on a given set of metrics, there’s really no ignoring that.  The people whose courses don’t fit the metrics as cleanly as others are capable of connecting the dots.  

Since status anxiety is likely to persist, any of my colleagues out there who are considering an ECHS-style program would be well-advised to take the temperature of the faculty, and to offer whatever assurances they can, before jumping in.  The program itself may well be worthy -- I’ve been impressed by the results I’ve seen -- but it may set off a serious trip wire.  Proceed with caution.  I’m not suggesting that it’s worth sacrificing a generation of kids just to avoid irritating some adults.  It isn’t.  But be aware that what seems in isolation like an obviously good idea may sound to some faculty like a mortal insult, and that they may respond accordingly.  Don’t be blindsided.