Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Collision Mix

A friend of mine in college, who had a radio show, used to specialize in “collision mixes.”  They’d be sequences of songs that made absolutely no sense next to each other, even if each was fine on its own.  Yesterday’s news brought a collision mix of its own.

First, I read about the new report from Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown decrying the ever-increasing rate of racial and economic polarization in American higher ed.  The short version is that higher education is increasingly both reflecting and ratifying existing class stratification in American society.  Exclusive colleges take students whose parents were able to afford to raise them in good school districts, or to pay for private schools.  Students who didn’t have those advantages are far less likely to get accepted into exclusive schools, assuming they apply at all.  Since the schools present themselves as substantially meritocratic, the net effect of competitive admissions is to gloss the existing distribution of wealth with a patina of merit.  

In this view of the world, it’s a shame and a scandal that community colleges are serving much larger percentages of students of color, while exclusive colleges are not.  

Then, that very same day, I got word that my own college was getting recognition for its success in attracting and serving a growing population of Latino students.  

And I thought, hmm.

Strictly speaking, the two news items aren’t contradictory.  One measure of the success of a community college is how well it serves the people who need it.  If the service area in which the college is located is becoming more Latino -- as is happening here -- then serving that population well means we’re doing our job.  I’m glad that we’re doing a good job of offering higher education to the community.  And I’m proud to be able to report, truthfully, that our Fall-to-Spring retention rate has improved steadily over the last four years at the exact same time as our student population has become more Latino.  

But I couldn’t help but notice the different value given to the same fact from each perspective.

Carnevale is certainly right that American society is increasingly class-stratified, and that the roots of that stratification show up on the ground in a myriad of mutually-reinforcing ways.  Good school districts -- frequently, those in which it costs more to live -- do a better job of preparing students for college.  Selective colleges know that.  Students who have the family resources to work for free can take unpaid internships that get them in the door in exciting places; students who need to work for pay don’t have that option.  And so on.

So from that standpoint, the news that a community college’s student body is becoming more Latino is just another sign that something has gone horribly wrong.

But from the standpoint of those of us actually working in the community college, the news that we’re successfully reaching a population that stands to benefit greatly from higher education is an unalloyed good.  We’re extending opportunities where they need to go.

And honestly, from inside a community college, the whole “undermatching” thesis is patently offensive.  If you accept the premise that only ten percent of colleges are academically worthwhile, then the arguments about the judicious allocation of spots in the freshman classes for those ten percent become crucial.  But what if you reject the premise?  Instead of trying to pry the “low-hanging” (!!) talented students of low income out of their communities, wouldn’t it be better to improve the colleges they actually choose?

I don’t disagree with Carnevale’s concern about class stratification.  But I’m more than a little perplexed that the solution is to toss life preservers more accurately.  We’d do better to make sure that every ship is seaworthy.  Multiply choices, improve the options, and make sure that community colleges and public four-year colleges can do right by students wherever they are, and celebrate successes where and when they happen.

Most collision mixes on the radio didn’t achieve much more than some forgettable laughs.  But this one might just offer more.