Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Sector Jumpers See

Libby Nelson, of Politico, asked the other day on Twitter why it is that graduation rates at two-year for-profit colleges are higher than at community colleges, even though graduation rates at four-year for-profit colleges lag their public counterparts.

The standard move would be to explain why graduation rates are a poor measure of community colleges, especially when those rates are based only on the IPEDS cohort (first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, who are a distinct minority of our student body).  And that’s true, as far as it goes.  But there’s more to it than that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and I jumped on the question, because we’ve both worked in both for-profit and non-profit higher ed.  We’re both sector-jumpers.  And there are things that are readily apparent to sector-jumpers that may not be readily apparent to folks who haven’t been in the bellies of both beasts.

What do many for-profits do differently from community colleges that helps with grad rates?

- Minimal remediation, if any.  

I was amazed, when I moved from DeVry to CCM, at the shift in the percentage of students who placed into developmental English.  At DeVry, it was in the single digits.  At CCM, it was the majority.  I learned later that CCM’s percentage was fairly typical for community colleges as a sector.  

Since I taught freshman comp at DeVry for a while, I can attest that the placements weren’t because the students were all fully polished upon arrival.  They were not.  101 was a punishing course to teach, since you had to try to meet students where they were.  

Math was a different issue, but even there, there was a premium on putting students in the highest level class they could conceivably pass.  

- Backloading Gen Ed classes.  Or, eat dessert first.

Students at for-profits are there to get jobs.  Typically, that’s the key selling point that recruiters use.  And since many students have had checkered academic pasts, they’re sensitive to revisiting scenes of earlier failures.  

Most traditional colleges force students to eat their vegetables -- basic math, English, and the usual distribution requirements -- before getting to what the students recognize as the reason they’re there.  As one of the beleaguered gen ed faculty, I heard students ask every single semester why they had to take my class.  

DeVry, and apparently other for-profits as well, noticed that.  It offered a lot of A.A.S. degrees -- associate’s of applied science, as opposed to associate of science or associate of arts -- to reduce the amount of gen ed.  And the gen ed courses it did require were spread evenly through the program, or even backloaded.  Students started with dessert, and only got to the veggies at the end.

It struck me as counterintuitive at first, but over time, I saw the logic.  If you recruit with visions of becoming a telecommunications tech -- that was big at the time -- but start by sticking students in a whole bunch of plain vanilla academic classes, they’ll collectively smell a rat.  But if you give them hands-on, obviously-relevant stuff from day one and get them hooked, eventually they’ll decide that they’ve put in enough time that they aren’t going to walk away just to avoid a psychology class.  

- Highly visible career services.

Again, if you’re selling placement, then you have to stay on-message.  Many traditional colleges require a “college success” course.  DeVry did that, but it also required a “career development” course that covered resume writing, interview wear, and the like.  Students (mostly) liked the latter, even though they griped freely about the former.  (The main objectors to the career development course were students over 40.  I couldn’t blame them.)  Say what you will about giving academic credit for that, but the simple truth was that many of the students did not come in with the cultural capital to know what constituted “professional” dress, or how to handle an interview.  Rather than just sloughing that off as the student’s problem, the institution tackled the problem directly.  There’s merit in that.

None of these measures is entirely to the good, but they’re potentially useful for community colleges to consider.  On my own campus, we’ve found that students in developmental math do better when the class is “linked” to a course in their intended major, which is our variation on “eat dessert first.”  When the students are motivated by contact with what they really want, they’re likelier to endure the veggies.  We’ve moved career advising to the first semester, to help students identify goals before they choose majors.  And we’re looking at ways to help students get through developmental coursework more quickly, so they don’t just throw up their hands in frustration and walk away.  We’re doing it to benefit the students, rather than to make money, but we’re doing it.

The for-profits are open to all sorts of criticisms.  I left the sector for a reason, and I’m glad to be back among nonprofits.  But writing them off without learning from them is a waste.  

Thanks to Libby Nelson for a great question, and to Tressie McMillan Cottom for deepening the discussion.  She’s really good at that.

I’m hoping to put together a conference panel with other sector jumpers, ideally with Tressie on board too.  If you’ve worked deeply in both, I’d love to hear from you at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.