Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Keep Out the Poor, the Huddled Masses…

I don’t often do this, but I’ll devote two posts to the same book.  In this one, I’ll respond to the larger conceptual issue highlighted in the IHE account of the book.  In a week or two, after having actually read the book itself, I’ll respond to its specifics more closely.

Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson have written a new book, Community Colleges and the Access Effect, in which they apparently argue that community colleges would be better off if they adopted selective admissions.  From the IHE account -- and again, stipulating that a detailed reading has yet to come -- they argue that open admissions policies and a focus on degree completion have contributed to a sort of false hope among the truly incapable that they’ll be able to get a degree.  As a result, community colleges post disappointing statistics, students drop out with useless debt, and time and money are squandered on what are essentially fool’s errands.  If community colleges were to screen out those least likely to succeed, they could do better by the ones who do get in.  As a bonus, high school students would lose the perceived safety net of community college and would try harder in high school.

Arguments can be made well or badly, so I’ll reserve judgment on Scherer and Anson’s execution of the argument until I’ve read it.  But at the conceptual level, it’s hard not to react.

I’ll start with conceding an easy piece.  Yes, we could get graduation rates up if we screened out the highest-risk students.  Selective four-year colleges have known that forever.  We wouldn’t even necessarily have to set the bar terribly high.  Just requiring that students place directly into college-level coursework upon enrollment would, by itself, do wonders for our graduation rate.  And a few basic demographic queries to IR reveal quickly who we should target.  If you know anything about racism in America, you won’t be shocked.  Catering to the middle class is easier than catering to the poor.  This is not news.

That said, the idea of simply writing off entire swaths of the population raises some serious questions.

First, where would they go?  It’s easy to say “Adult Basic Education,” but much of that is provided either by, or in partnership with, community colleges.  And most of it is badly underfunded.  It would be possible to break one institution into two, but how that saves money is beyond me.  

One could easily say “they would go to work,” but the economy has changed.  My grandfather was able to get a good unionized job with a ninth-grade education.  He was able to send his kids to college, from which they graduated without debt.  That used to be possible.  But it’s not 1950 anymore.  College degrees are imperfect means of social mobility; no argument there.  But replacing them with nostalgia is not a serious answer.

Alternately, one could say “they could get vocational certificates.”  Again, guess where many vocational certificates are awarded.  Hint: community colleges.  In fact, the major trend among “comprehensive” community colleges -- that is, those that focus on both transfer education and vocational training -- for the last ten years or so has been “stackable” certificates.  “Stackable” means that they stand on their own, but they also count towards degrees.  (For example, our Culinary certificate counts towards our degree in Hospitality Management.)  So offering certificates as an alternative to community colleges is to get community colleges wrong.

I was struck in the IHE interview when one of the authors referred to students being required to show some “ability to benefit” from college-level instruction.  I don’t know if that was a knowing reference or a fortuitous turn of phrase, but in the trenches, “Ability to Benefit” referred to an alternate route into community college for students who didn’t have either a high school diploma or a GED.  That avenue was closed off by Congress in 2012.  Now, students who don’t have diplomas have to jump through the hoops of GED testing or whatever test a given state takes as a substitute.  (We’ve adopted HiSET.)  You could look at that as raising standards, or you could look at it as exclusionary.  

At a more basic level, though, I have to hang my hat on the ecological fallacy.  Let’s say that 50 percent of young, middle-class white women graduate, and only 25 percent of young, low-income black men do.  From an efficiency perspective, then, should we only admit young, middle-class white women?  After all, they’re twice as likely to succeed.  Shouldn’t we get the most bang for the buck, and tell the rest to hit the bricks?

No, and not only for the blazingly obvious moral reasons.  Knowing the percentage of any given group tells you precisely nothing about the chances of any one member of that group. Making the inference from group to individual is called the ecological fallacy.  It’s a fundamental truth of statistics, though it’s often ignored in policy discussions.  (That’s why, for instance, it’s false to equate a college’s graduation rate with a given student’s chance of graduating.  Every time I see columnist do that, I wince.)   We lack the epistemological basis to say upfront who will succeed and who will fail.  We can’t know until their performance reveals it.

And that’s where I have to part company with those who would just throw up their hands and declare entire groups of people unreachable.

If you start with the moral position that everyone deserves a chance to chart their own course, then paternalistically writing off entire populations, even if it’s “for their own good,” is offensive.  
The only way it would be defensible would be if we knew with certainty who would fail.  But we don’t.  And the surprises matter.

If you ask people on campus what they like about working here, you won’t hear many wax rhapsodic about 1970’s brutalist architecture.  You’ll hear about the thrill of seeing students redeem second chances.  The whole point of second chances is that the first chances didn’t work.  The second chance has long been one of American culture’s most endearing qualities, and we’re at our very best when we broaden the circle of people who get those chances.  That’s probably why community colleges were invented in the United States.  For all of their quirks -- longtime readers may have seen me mention one or two -- they reflect an admirable moral position that says that nobody gets to tell me I can’t go to college.  Nobody.  

Besides, we already have selective colleges.  They’re called “selective colleges.”  Reducing community colleges to public clones of private enclaves would render them redundant.  

The real issue with student debt isn’t community colleges anyway.  It’s a combination of high tuition places, state disinvestment, and a sustained, crummy job market.  Fix those, and we’ll make real progress.  Tightening the circle to exclude the huddled masses is not the answer.

In my darker moments, I wonder if community colleges are too egalitarian, or utopian, for a culture that has forgotten that a significant middle class is a human construct, rather than a natural law. I’d be up for a principled moral argument about whether we want a political economy that’s more like Sweden or more like Brazil.  Let’s have that argument, and have it honestly.  But let’s not pretend that protecting the poor from their own ambition is for their own good.  It isn’t. They know better.  That’s why they’re here.