Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Students Not All the Same, Study Finds

It’s lovely when you get scholarly backing for something you already knew.  

Along those lines, I was happy to see this report by Erin Dunlop Velez, of the American Institutes of Research.  She looked at graduation rates and dropout rates across various student populations and institutional types, and she found that…

brace yourself…

Different students have different needs.  Specifically, about 30 percent of the students who dropped out of four-year colleges would have had a higher probability of eventually attaining a bachelor’s degree had they attended community colleges instead.

In other words, the idea that an institution’s overall graduation rate can be taken as any given student’s likelihood of graduating -- an animating assumption behind the whole “undermatching” literature, as well as no end of attacks on community colleges generally -- is false.  A significant number of students -- particularly low-income and first-generation students -- would be more likely to succeed at a community college.

That may sound obvious, and in a way, it is.  But it calls into question much of our current political discourse.
For example, it suggests that students who choose community colleges often know exactly what they are doing, even if much of the commentariat doesn’t.  Someone who has a strong local support network, and no family background in higher ed, may very well benefit from living at home and staying connected with their support networks while attending a low-cost institution that specializes in the first two years.  That benefit may take the form of graduation, or of early transfer, or of coming back later to try again.  (The latter two count as institutional failures, even though students often don’t experience them that way.)  

If we assume that students often know what they’re doing, then the “rescue” narrative starts to fall apart.  At that point, rather than asking how to punish colleges with low graduation rates, we should instead ask how to make the colleges worthy of their students’ valid ambitions.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has found similar truths in her examinations of students at for-profit colleges.  Yes, much of the for-profit sector has reason to be suspect.  But it’s also true that students who choose to enroll there aren’t just helpless sheep, waiting for the heroic crusader to save them.  They have their reasons, and if you listen closely, many of their reasons make sense.  (When I taught at DeVry, I found many of the students quite savvy and well-spoken about their choice.)  Yes, most choices happen within constraints.  But the right response to that is to look at those constraints, rather than to blame the students.

If we take Cottom’s and Velez’ work seriously, which I strongly believe we should, then we land in some very different places than the folks who look at higher ed merely as a “pipeline” do.  (For some reason, hydraulic metaphors are everywhere.  I keep hearing about “fixing” “leaks,” as if students are as interchangeable as water molecules.)  The pipeline metaphor assumes a unidirectional path towards a single goal.  But that’s not reality.  Students stop in and stop out, they “reverse” transfer, and they even change goals.  A unidirectional measure does violence to those intentions.

None of this is meant to imply that community colleges should stop working to improve.  It’s to say that we can’t really talk about colleges without understanding the different students who attend them.  Unless we make those distinctions thoughtfully and attentively, we’ll wind up shutting down the very places that provide the best opportunity for the people who need it most.

Students are not all the same.  Institutions shouldn’t be, either.  The hydraulic metaphor doesn’t hold water. (Sorry.) That should have been obvious by now, but if a new study helps make the case, I’m happy to highlight it.