Monday, November 11, 2013

Reading Cues in Connecticut

Budgets are practical, but they’re also indicative.  People read meanings into them.  Whether correctly or not, people will read value judgments into them and take behavioral cues accordingly.

That seems to be happening in Connecticut with the latest conflict between UConn and the community colleges.  

Over the last couple of years, the state government in Connecticut has sent a clear set of messages to the various sectors of higher education.  It has poured unprecedented money into the flagship research university, UConn, while forcing austerity on community and state colleges.  It even took the unprecedented step of legislating a statewide remediation policy for the community colleges, going so far as to ignore the recommendations of the people on whose research the change was allegedly based.

Apparently, the lesson UConn learned from these moves is that it’s special.  It’s acting to pull up the drawbridge and separate itself from the community and state colleges, while taking a few swift kicks at them for good measure.  

According to these articles in the Connecticut Mirror -- and a hat-tip to Rebecca Townsend for sending these along -- the chief academic officer at UConn issued a memo advocating a new, much lower cap on transfer credits for UConn students.  (The five top feeder colleges for transfer credits to UConn are all community colleges within Connecticut.)  The memo goes out of its way to label community college courses as “easier and cheaper” than the UConn courses for which students substitute them.  The same memo refers, revealingly, to “aspirant institutions” for comparison, naming Northwestern and Duke specifically, and making the point that those “aspirant institutions” allow fewer transfer credits than UConn.

The memo does not mention that Northwestern and Duke are private, and UConn is public.

The proposed policy is puzzling on its own terms.  It would apply to students who matriculate as freshman at UConn, but not to students who transfer in from other places.  (Currently, UConn accepts up to 90 credits out of 120 in transfer.)  One would think that if community college courses were somehow tainted, you wouldn’t worry about the student who only took a few; you’d worry about the student who took several years’ worth.  To be fair, though, one article points out that this move appears to be an opening salvo, possibly foreshadowing a wholesale attack on transfer.

If one didn’t know better, one could be excused for thinking that this was little more than class snobbery.  

After all, one could read the same data UConn cites and reach an entirely different conclusion.  For example, knowing that many intro-level gen ed courses at research universities are taught in 300 student auditoriums, with recitation sections run by t.a.’s, one might expect relatively unimpressive levels of student success relative to what their academic preparation would have predicted.  Contrast those to community college courses taught in sections of twenty-something, often with full-time faculty who specialize in teaching precisely those courses, and one would expect higher success rates.

Whether that makes the community college courses “easier,” or simply more conducive to student success, depends on your definition.  Good teaching makes learning easier.  Is that a bad thing?

“Cheaper,” yes.  And that may be the real issue here.

I was flattered to be cited in the open letter from the faculty at Manchester Community College to UConn, taking exception to the proposed new policy.  The MCC faculty note, correctly, that public higher education is not just an assortment of autonomous institutions, but an ecosystem.  Students certainly experience it that way.  The system works best when it functions as a whole.  Carving out one campus as exceptional, at the expense of the others, remakes the entire ecosystem.  It turns UConn from a valued counterpart to a predator.  It’s revealing that the “aspirant institutions” UConn cited were both private.  That’s how it’s behaving.  Why the taxpayers of Connecticut should support that is another question.

Fixing the latest mistake would require UConn pulling back its proposal, but that would only be a beginning.  In its defense, it’s simply reading the cues given by the state.  Those will have to change, too, which will involve some serious reflection on what the state is  trying to achieve.  Yes, the different sectors of higher education serve different, if complementary, purposes.  But they shouldn’t serve different economic classes.  While we’re at it, if UConn wants to improve success rates in gen eds, it might want to look at the very colleges that manage to save students it can’t save itself.