Monday, December 16, 2013

Selling the Springboard

I’m torn on this one.

A for-profit company, American Honors, is offering a package to high-achieving community college students with the goal of helping them transfer to selective institutions.  The article even quotes a transfer coordinator at Mount Holyoke, just up the street, saying that students who went through that program will be at an advantage in the transfer process.


I’ll a big fan of Honors programs at community colleges.  If you believe, as I do, that the correlation between parental income and student ability is less than total, then it follows that some students from economically modest backgrounds may be quite strong academically.  Those students may not be able to afford -- or believe that they’re able to afford -- to start at an elite four-year college.  But the best of them are quite strong, and they deserve the chance to show it.  My own college has a history of sending Honors students to Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, Cornell, Hampshire, and Brandeis, among other places, and I think it’s one of the best things we do.  

That said, it’s not entirely clear to me what value the vendor is proposing to add, beyond what a college ought to be doing already.  The website isn’t terribly expansive, and the Times story doesn’t shed much light, either.  But it appears that the vendor will supply a curriculum, which will apparently be delivered partly or entirely online.  It will also set up a sort of social network -- “the quad” -- where students will interact with each other.

I have no qualms about offering the strongest community college students a curriculum worthy of their talents.  But I do have qualms about colleges outsourcing curriculum and instruction.  Those are core functions.  It’s not like hiring an outside vendor to run the cafeteria.  

I suppose I could see some argument if it targeted very small, rural colleges that couldn’t afford to run Honors courses on their own because they couldn’t fill them.  But the initial group doesn’t reflect that.  Ivy Tech, one of the initial participants, has a larger enrollment than Indiana University.  It isn’t small.

How does shared governance work when the instruction comes from outside?  Who does the quality control?  Are exclusive liberal arts colleges suddenly taking online courses in transfer?  And how, exactly, does American Honors propose to make a profit?  

Community colleges lose money on instruction, by design.  Although that’s frequently understood as a bug, it’s actually a feature.  The point of community colleges is accessibility.  They underprice their core service in the name of that mission.  The difference is made up through a combination of direct (aid) and indirect (tax exemption) subsidies, plus some income from ancillary operations.  (Most of the community colleges that have foundations don’t use the money they raise for operating expenses.  That money usually goes either for scholarships or for capital projects, like buildings or equipment.)  I’m guessing -- and this is really just a guess, given how sparse the website is -- that American Honors will run its courses as loss leaders, and try to make a profit through advertising on its own social network.  Given the mortality rate of such things, I’d be wary of basing a college’s curriculum on that.  Anyone remember Friendster?  MySpace?  Ping?  

The “springboard” function of transfer is valuable and worthy of much more public attention than it gets.  I’d rather see community colleges own that, and highlight it, than outsource it.  The springboard should be the last thing we sell for a mess of pottage.