Tuesday, October 22, 2013

California Raisins and Community Colleges

Readers of a certain age will remember when the California Raisins singing “I heard it through the grapevine” were the hottest thing on tv.  They were the stars of a series of commercials sponsored by some sort of consortium of grape farmers in California, selling the idea of raisins.  Even at the time, I remember being sort of amazed that a consortium of farmers would pay for a series of commercials selling the concept of fruit.  It just seemed a little...abstract.  Catchy, but abstract.

In this, as in so many things, dancing raisins may show us the way.

Yesterday’s piece about GWU not really being “need-blind” hit me the wrong way.  You know who’s really need-blind?  Community colleges.  But nobody applies that label to community colleges, because we’re considered a different category.  

Well, why is that?  

Financial need is a very real thing, growing more so as incomes become more polarized and tuition and fees more expensive.  One of the very easiest ways for students to keep costs down is to start at a community college and then transfer.  Compare:

Four years at Private U: $50,000 x 4 = $200,000

Two years at cc and two years at Private U: ($4,000 x 2) + ($50,000 x 2) = $108,000

Savings with same highest degree = $92,000

Nitpick the numbers any way you want; the math is still basically the same.  Yes, there’s aid at Private U, but there’s aid at the cc, too.  (You know the median student loan debt of our graduates?  Zero.  Combine Pell grants, work-study, and low tuition, and that can happen.)  And even if the annual percentage increases in tuition are the same, PU is starting from such a higher base that assuming four years at the same cost is really cutting a lot of slack.  Add transfer scholarships to the picture, and the savings get even greater.   The path may not be for everyone, but it’s probably good for many more people than currently use it.

Which is where the California raisins come in.

No single community college has the advertising budget to get this message out on any sort of scale.  Each college is (rightly) concerned with its own local visibility and brand awareness.  But there’s a common interest across the sector in raising public awareness of the transfer option as a way around increasing student loan burdens.  No individual raisin farmer could afford to advertise the entire industry, but the industry as a whole could.

In other words, in addition to the message that “your local community college is a good school,” we need to send the message as a sector that community colleges can be good launch pads for higher degrees.

On a popular level, that will involve getting past the limits of local marketing budgets and inter-institutional competition.  On a political level, it would involve expanding the discussion around community colleges beyond just remediation and workforce development, as important as both of those are.  On the level of elite commentary, it would involve getting otherwise-intelligent people to see beyond the common fallacy of moving from “x community college has a 20 percent graduation rate” to “therefore, you have a 20 percent chance of graduating if you go there.”  That’s just simply not true, but it’s widely stated.  (Just for the sake of clarity, if you break out the grad by some really basic demographics, you start to see huge variations on that percentage.  Full-time students graduate more, part-time less.  Women graduate more, men less.  Race, income, and previous level of academic preparation play out in predictable ways.  Unless you’re perfectly average in every way, the 20 percent figure does not apply to you.)  

In the meantime, we pay the price for failing to market ourselves as well as dried fruit.  It’s time to send a different message through the grapevine.