Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Access from Above

The twentieth century gave “re-education camps” a bad name.

(I can’t imagine anyone quoting that out of context…)

But short-term college programs for people who already have bachelor’s degrees (or higher) are looking like the new hot ticket for community colleges and for-profit providers.  Whether you call them “boot camps” or “retraining” or something else, they’re targeting a market that neither sector has historically targeted.

Just this week, Anya Kamenetz did a story on four-month coding bootcamps for NPR, and the president of Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Steven Johnson, tweeted that fully five percent of Sinclair’s credit students have a bachelor’s or higher.  At the AACC this Spring, Kent Phillippe noted that “community college is the new graduate school,” with more bachelor’s grads returning to community college and fewer going on to graduate or law schools.

Taken together, I wonder if we’re starting to see the next great enrollment opportunity.

Community colleges have been tasked with being “open access,” and they resolutely are.  That often involves giving chances to attend college to students who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance, for any number of reasons.  It also extends to students who’ve taken courses over the years, but never actually finished a degree.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, many community colleges served influxes of Moms who wanted to return to the workforce, but had to get a degree first.  

They’ve also always served students who could, and did, attend four-year colleges first.  “Reverse transfer,” as it’s known, is much more common than most of the public (and most policymakers) appreciates.  According to the most recent stats from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, over half of the students who transfer from public four-year colleges transfer to community colleges. “Reverse transfer” takes many forms, ranging from the student who partied his way through a first semester away from home to the student who wanted to change direction late in the game.  

Now, we’re getting post-bachelor’s students.  I wouldn’t call them “transfers,” exactly, but they’re similar.  Post-bachelor’s students are usually either foreign students brushing up on ESL before graduate school -- a cohort of its own -- or career changers.  Unsurprisingly, given the ferociousness of the Great Recession, career changers are more common than they used to be.  

Post-bachelor’s students don’t count in our graduation numbers, since they aren’t “first time.”  And our various systems aren’t really built for them.  They don’t need “orientation” in the same sense that first-timers do.  The focus on remediation is irrelevant for them.  They often aren’t eligible for financial aid, which is based on the linear-progression model of degrees.

And that’s where the for-profit providers come in.

As regular readers know, I’ve suggested for years that the logical space for for-profits to try to compete in isn’t the “low” end, where they’re up against untaxed and subsidized community colleges, but the high end.  Some of them are starting to figure that out.  Even some of the MOOC providers have moved away from degrees and towards corporate training, where they can assume that most of the students will already have bachelor’s degrees or higher.

The “access from above” group is still small enough, relative to other groups, that it mostly flies below the radar.  But keep an eye on it.  If community college is the new grad school, let’s do it right.