Sunday, June 02, 2013

Honors as Bait?

Should community colleges use Honors programs to prevent becoming stigmatized as providers to the poor?

Paul Fain had a wonderful piece recently, building off of some research reports appended to the Century Foundation report from last week.  In essence, the papers reported that most community colleges are either extremely white or extremely not-white; only about a third had a racial breakdown similar to that of America as a whole.  (I’m happy to report that HCC scores as integrated, if you use that scale.)  Their racial breakdowns are largely functions of geography, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the “community” part of community colleges.  

Economic class tracks similarly.  Using Pell eligibility as a marker, about half of community colleges score as “economically integrated.”  (Again, HCC does.)  The report notes that colleges with higher rates of affluent white students tend to have higher graduation and transfer rates than colleges with larger proportions of low-income students and students of color.  It notes further that “performance” metrics, if used without attention to underlying demographics, will tend to funnel more money to colleges whose students have more money, and less money to colleges whose students have less money.  

In theory, that doesn’t have to happen.  It wouldn’t take much statistical magic to set a “predicted” graduation rate based on demographics, and then to base judgments of “performance” on the margin by which a college either exceeded or fell short of the rates its demographics would have predicted.  (It’s a variation on grading on a curve.)  If the most you can claim is that you don’t usually turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, that’s not terribly impressive.  But if you punch above your weight, particularly with a group of students that ordinarily struggles, then that deserves recognition.

Don’t mix metaphors like this at home, kids.  I’m a trained professional.

Of course, a college is more than a collection of individuals.  “Peer effects” can kick in when a college’s culture leans strongly in one direction or another.  That’s the idea behind the “undermatching” literature, which asserts that high-achieving students with low income do themselves a disservice by applying to colleges that are less selective than they could have.  The idea is that colleges in which the default assumption is that everyone will graduate will pull up students on the borderline, whereas colleges where most students don’t make it will convey a certain fatalism.  

To me, that’s the more compelling argument for Honors programs in a community college context.

Yes, there’s a political upside to ensuring that community colleges aren’t typecast as being exclusively for what I recently called the Three Dollar People.  Making sure that the college serves the entire community -- including the squeezed and politically active middle class -- is prudent.  

But the educational argument strikes me as more compelling.  Honors programs aren’t just cynical attempts to game the numbers by upscaling your demographics.  They’re good-faith efforts to get around the “undermatching” hypothesis by ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to affordable, rigorous classes with high expectations.  If the talented but lower-income students with family obligations that make her effectively place-bound can still find stimulating peers at her local community college, then everybody wins.  

The “undermatching” literature seems to take for granted that talent is finite, and that only a few places can provide worthy challenges for the talented.  If you accept those premises, then yes, imperfect recruitment practices by the few worthy colleges represent a waste of talent on a national scale.  

But if you reject the premise that only a few “worthies” can possibly live up to strong students, then the question looks very different.  What if most community colleges were able to provide worthy challenges?  

Honors programs, at this level, require conscious thought in the design.  How does “honors” work for the calculus track in engineering?  How does it work in programs with relatively low enrollments already?  

But those don’t strike me as deal-breakers.  They strike me as conversation starters.  If we start with the premise that there’s a greater shortage of opportunities than of talent -- which I believe as a matter of faith -- then the solution to “undermatching” isn’t a more conscientious program of cherry-picking.  It’s spreading vigorous Honors programs far and wide.  

Yes, there’s a political benefit.  But that’s not the reason to do it.  We should do it because the students need, and deserve, it.