Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Consolation Prizes

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg suggested yesterday that students who drop out of a four year program after two or more years should be awarded Associate’s degrees as a sort of consolation prize, like a year’s supply of turtle wax.

The argument is that a student who has put in two or more solid years of college has done some real work, but that she leaves with nothing to show for it.  An Associate’s degree signifies something concrete, and carries more heft than a high school diploma alone.  Since it’s better to leave with something than with nothing, Trachtenberg suggests, why not award the Associate’s as a consolation prize?


A few thoughts:

First, and most obviously, an Associate’s degree is a degree.  That means that it’s more than just a collection of random credits.  It has some sort of coherent pattern to it.  Curriculum committees at community colleges spend painfully long meetings hammering out distribution requirements, major requirements, credit hour allocations, and the rest precisely because the degrees are supposed to carry some sort of specific meaning.  

Yes, some degrees are much more forgiving than others.  On most campuses, the liberal arts or transfer degree will have much more room for choice than, say, an engineering or nursing degree.  But even the “looser” ones are more than just additive.

Second -- and this argument is usually used against community colleges, so it’s odd to turn it around -- there’s a difference between finishing what you start, even if it’s less ambitious, and walking away. Yes, that difference is often economic or external, but the students who are able to negotiate difficult circumstances and finish anyway really accomplish something.  

That said, it’s easy enough now in many cases for students to do “reverse transfers” into community colleges, and then to take a stray couple of courses to fill in gaps.  Most of the national discussion on transfer assumes that it only moves in one direction, but it doesn’t.  Reverse transfer is more common than one might imagine.  

I also wonder about the status issue that Trachtenberg raises but immediately drops:

Research universities that grant not only bachelor of arts or science degrees but also masters and doctorates are on the top of the chart. Community colleges that offer only associate of arts degrees not so much. Faculty are paid differently, research expectations are not the same, test scores of entering students are often widely variant at the two extremes.

Okay...so if four-year colleges start awarding two-year degrees, does that imply a convergence on teaching loads, salaries, and the rest?  Or are the four-years just slumming?

The piece that Trachtenberg gets right is that student behavior on the ground is much more varied and dynamic than policymakers typically assume.  I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so it makes sense to rethink systems built as one-way streets.  Rather than having every college do every thing, which strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity, it would probably make more sense to have ecosystems of colleges in which each institution specializes in its own thing.  Students would be served best by knowing what can be found where, and by making it easy to switch gears, reverse direction, stop out to make money, and generally attend to life.  

But that approach implies respect across the board.  Community colleges have long respected the unique value that four-year colleges offer.  It would be nice to see that respect reciprocated.