Monday, March 10, 2014

Thoughts on “What Excellent Community Colleges Do”

Plato suggested that to know the good is to do the good, which is why I’m not a Platonist.  Knowing something and doing it are very different propositions.  That’s why I could finish a very good book about ways that community colleges can be more successful at what they do, nodding along contentedly as I read, and still come away feeling like something was missing.  

Joshua Wyner directs the Aspen Institute, which offers awards to community colleges for excellence in degree completion, equity, student learning, and labor market success.  He has a new book out, What Excellent Community Colleges Do, offering an overview of what he has learned in that role.

It’s brief, accessible, and very much worth reading, once you get used to the genre.  It’s sort of a cross between a foundation report and a scholarly analysis; it has a clear point of view, and it gets some digs in, but it’s intended mostly to provoke change.  I frequently found myself wanting more detail, but that’s not really the purpose of the book.

I won’t spoil the content -- honestly, it’s worth setting aside the time to run through it yourself -- but I did detect a couple of themes.  The first was legibility.  The kind of students in whom community colleges specialize often don’t know the unwritten rules of how to navigate higher education.  That’s not their fault, and it’s not an accurate measure of “merit,” whatever that is.  The better community colleges have stopped blaming students for that, and have instead developed intentional protocols to fill in the gaps.  Those protocols take a number of forms -- guided pathways, targeted advising, mandatory counseling, student success courses -- but they’re all based on the idea that students’ talents won’t really shine if they don’t know the rules of the game.  

The second was that while community colleges have been badly underfunded relative to the rest of higher ed, and have often fallen victim to policy decisions based on other sectors, they need get beyond their circumstances.  (As I put it in my own book, they need to make none of that matter.)  Yes, it’s easy to catalog the ways in which they’ve been dealt a bad hand, but it’s still up to them to play that hand as best they can.  

And that’s where I wanted more.  

For example, Wyner discusses the elimination of late registration as a way to improve student learning and completion.  (The idea is that students who show up having already missed class time are statistically far less likely to succeed than students who are there from day one.) Valencia, one of the colleges he highlights, has done that, and has partly compensated for the enrollment loss by running late-start sections of popular classes.  

All of which is great, but as those of us in the trenches know, late-start classes raise difficult financial aid issues.  From Wyner’s treatment, I don’t know how Valencia handled those.  To the extent that scaling and sustainability are important -- and Wyner acknowledges both -- classes that aren’t eligible for financial aid aren’t really helpful.

Wyner is quite good on outlining some of the policy-based dilemmas that community colleges face, even while refusing to let colleges off the hook.  Credit transfers to state colleges and universities are an obvious case; for all of the talk about student success, it’s not unusual for department chairs at receiving colleges to balk at “giving away too many credits.”  They tend to cherry-pick which courses they’ll allow in transfer, often inventing academic rationales but actually responding to very real material incentives -- conflicts of interest, if you prefer -- on their own campuses.

Some states, including my own, have recognized the issue and legislated solutions for public colleges and universities.  (In Massachusetts, the program is called “Mass Transfer.”)  The benefits of that kind of rule are twofold.  It relieves taxpayers of the burden of paying for the same course twice.  And less obviously, it creates a competitive pressure on the less selective private colleges to follow suit.  

I was surprised that Wyner largely left out credit-recovery and reverse-transfer students; they’re both significant portions of the student body, and they both raise challenges for folks who think only in traditional categories.  “Credit-recovery” refers to prospective students -- typically working adults -- who have a hodgepodge of credits from various stints at various schools, but no degree.  Credit-recovery programs help them fill in the gaps and turn a collection of courses into an actual degree.  Reverse transfers are students who start at four-year colleges but decide to switch to community colleges.  They’re typically younger than “credit recovery” students, though not always, and they raise difficult questions for the folks who like to cite transfer and graduation statistics.  The path doesn’t only run in one direction, even though most policy discussion assumes that it does.

Still, as a sort of primer and goad, Wyner’s book works.  Most of the colleges he examines face many of the same fiscal and policy constraints as everyone else, but they’ve managed to find ways to move forward anyway.  “Guided pathways,” learning communities, and careful curricular pruning are all realistic options for many colleges, and there’s much to be said for each.  And his relative circumspection around tactics actually helps with his discussion of personnel matters, where it would have been easy to take an ugly turn.  He acknowledges the issues, but then quickly looks away.  I consider that to his credit.

Excellent community colleges work in plenty of ways, often against considerable headwinds.  Wyner should be commended for gathering some of the greatest hits in a single, easily understood collection.  We can save the messy details for the sequel.