Monday, July 06, 2015

Choking on AIR

(This post was co-written with Susanna Williams)

“Overly high attendance rates at community colleges are part of a larger problem…” - Harry Holzer, AIR Institute Fellow

In an Intro to Philosophy class so many years ago, a professor told the story of the turtles.  A student asked what held the world up, and the teacher responded that the world sat on the back of a turtle.  The student asked what the turtle stood on, and the teacher said it was on another turtle.  Anticipating the question, the teacher said that it’s turtles all the way down.

Our response to this piece from AIR is “no,” all the way down.  It’s so severely wrong that it needs a full-throated rebuttal.  

The argument is a tangled mess, but as near as we can discern, it relies on several elements:

  • Graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal, therefore we should encourage high-achieving students to pursue degrees at four-year institutions where they have a better chance of finding success.

  • Students fail to attend colleges worthy of their academic potential mostly because they are “so unfamiliar with the postsecondary world” that they don’t know any better than to just attend the school they’re most familiar with, either through proximity or affordability.

  • If only students had better information, they would make the right choice, i.e. the school with the best graduation rate.

Even on its own terms, though, the argument is confused.  Holzer notes that “high achieving” high school grads do far better than “low achieving” ones, then somehow concludes that community colleges should be left to low achievers.  

To get there, he relies on the idea of “undermatching.”  The theory behind “undermatching” is that talented students will rise or fall to the level of the college they attend, so if they attend lower-level colleges than they’re capable of, they’ll leave talent on the table.

It’s a difficult argument on a good day.  A study by Scott Heil, Liza Reisel, and Paul Attewell published in AERA in 2014 found “no evidence that students who do not attend highly selective colleges suffer reduced chances of graduation as a result, all else being equal.”  A 2015 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that “46 percent of all students who completed a four-year degree had been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the past 10 years.”  If community colleges are truly deathtraps to ambition, then it’s hard to explain why the proportion of BA grads with community college experience almost exactly matches the percentage of American undergrads attending community colleges.  The math simply does not work.

Part of the issue is the easy-but-false equation of graduation with success.  As those of us in the trenches know, many students who attend community colleges don’t intend to graduate from them.  Instead, they intend to do a year and then transfer to a four-year college. (The language of “degree-seeking students” doesn’t capture that nuance.  These students are seeking degrees, just not there.)   A student who does that and subsequently graduates with a BA shows up in the cc’s numbers as a dropout, even though the student got what she came for.  That student will show up in the 46 percent figure from the NSCRC, but will show up on the negative side of a community college’s graduation rate.  Counting that as failure is measurement error.

Holzer compounds the mistake with a gratuitous swipe at humanities majors at community colleges, noting that their “market premiums” are negligible.  

No, no, no.  Wrong all the way down.

English majors at community colleges are intended for transfer.  That’s their purpose.  They should be measured on the academic success of their graduates at subsequent four-year schools.  Filtering out the high achievers -- which is what you do statistically when you exclude the earnings of students who transfer and subsequently earn higher degrees and salaries -- is measurement error of another order entirely.   How would Harvard’s alumni earnings look if we filtered out everyone who went on to law school, med school or business school?  

The assumption that community colleges prevent success is not based on evidence -- the evidence decisively shows otherwise -- but on a larger assumption about a Great Chain of Being.  If you assume that exclusivity defines quality, then it follows by definition that any college with open admissions must be terrible.  Never join a club that would accept you as a member.  If Yale is the model, then Gateway Community College can only be explained as a deviation.  

But a single Great Chain of Being assumes that every student has the same goals.  They don’t.  It also assumes that every student who wants to go to Yale, can.  They can’t.  And it assumes that failing to attend Yale is a sign of a lack of academic seriousness.  That’s false, though if we continue to fund colleges by that assumption, it could become self-fulfilling.

The logic of the “undermatching” thesis leads inexorably -- and, some of us suspect, deliberately -- to a sort of Darwinist culling of the colleges that serve the most diverse student bodies.  Performance funding schemes get applied to community colleges, with their low-income and multiracial student populations, yet flagships -- much wealthier and whiter --  escape similar scrutiny.   Given the relative costs, and the weight of evidence, that can’t be explained without reference to some much larger, and more charged, issues of stratification.

American higher education has its issues, heaven knows, but  shunting all high-achieving students to schools with better graduation rates isn’t the solution.  If we’re truly concerned about maximizing student success, why should we assume that success will only ever be possible at one of a few, deliberately exclusive places?  Why not provide the resources to help colleges do a better job where they are and where the students are?  The problem with American higher education isn’t that there’s too much of it.  It’s that we haven’t made a priority of making sure that it’s worthy of every student, including those who don’t look like Whiffenpoofs.The answer isn’t letting more students into the club. It’s eliminating the club altogether.