Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Best Part of Graduation Season

Charlie Parker, the pioneering jazz saxophonist, once mentioned to one of his bandmates that he really liked country music.  Puzzled, the bandmate asked why.  Parker responded “The stories, man.  The stories.”

The stories are the best part of graduation season.

The last several weeks leading up to graduation are full of events celebrating the successes of students in various programs.  Every year, I wish some of the critics of public higher education would follow Charlie Parker’s example and listen to some of the stories.

They’d hear from students who flunked out in previous attempts at college, but who came back older, wiser, and on a mission.  (They don’t show up in our graduation rates because they aren’t “first time.”)  Then they’d hear from students who slogged through, a few courses at a time, while raising multiple kids alone and working.  (They don’t show up in our graduation rates because they aren’t “full time.”)  They’d hear from students who showed up barely speaking English, perhaps illiterate in two languages, but who caught the bug, buckled down, and made it through.  (They show up as dropouts in our graduation rates, because they take “too long.”)  

They’d hear from veterans who found the community college a helpful way to adjust to civilian life.  (We had over 40 veterans graduate this year.)  They’d hear from students who followed their parents here.  I always enjoy the moment at the Nurses’ pinning ceremony where a new graduate is pinned by her Mom, who is an alum.  As performance measures go, that’s a pretty good one.

If we want to talk about institutional “performance,” let’s really talk about it.  Let’s talk about the folks who don’t show up in the numbers, or who show up in misleading ways.  Let’s talk about the options available to many people if community colleges are not.  

But before doing that, let’s get policymakers and pundits to sit through a few weeks’ worth of the runup to graduation, and listen to the stories.  Hear what the numbers won’t tell them.  After that, maybe the conversation would be a little bit smarter.