Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Stigma

I heard a comment this weekend that made me wonder.

Is the stigma of “community college” as strong as it used to be?

When I was in high school, it was an article of faith that community college was a last-ditch option for people who couldn’t get in anywhere else.  At the time, you’d hear phrases like “thirteenth grade” or “high school with ashtrays.”

Ashtrays are gone now, for other reasons, and I still hear “thirteenth grade” from time to time.  But the reactions I get from other parents when I mention where I work aren’t consistent with the old stereotypes.  Instead, I’m hearing a lot of “y’know, I used to ignore those, but they’re making a lot more sense now.”

Some of that may be courtesy, but it’s consistent enough that I’m wondering if there’s some truth to it.  If there isn’t, there should be.

If the stigma were fading, I’d guess it would be as a function of several factors.  The most basic one is cost: when even a public four-year school runs fifteen to twenty thousand a year for in-state tuition, and privates are anywhere from thirty to sixty and up per year, transferable gen ed credits at four or five thousand a year start to look pretty good.  That’s especially true if you have multiple kids.  

But value reflects quality, as well as cost, and I think some word about quality is getting out.  Many community colleges have Honors programs that challenge strong students, and that serve as transfer pipelines into some impressive places.  And as the sector has matured -- about half of the community colleges in America, including Brookdale, were founded in the 1960’s -- most adults know someone who attended the local one.  It’s harder to stereotype when a satisfied alum is in the office next door.

That said, though, I’m not sure how to measure “stigma.”  And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that shifts in the degree of “stigma” vary by demographics, whether by race, income, region, or whatever combination you prefer.

The prestige hierarchy within higher education rests mostly on a combination of age, wealth, and exclusivity.  Community colleges will lose on “exclusivity” every time, by design, since they’re open to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent.  And funding is always an issue.  The sector as a whole is getting better at cultivating alumni and other donors -- to which I say, yes, yes, yes -- but it’s starting off behind.  

But to the extent that we look at outcomes, rather than inputs, I could see the sector start to gain some overdue respect.  At a really basic level, the percentage of bachelor’s degree grads with significant community college credits is almost exactly the percentage of American undergrads enrolled at community colleges.  In other words, the widely-held myths of “dropout factories” don’t square with facts on the ground.  And the oft-cited graduation rates are measuring the wrong thing; so many students transfer before graduating, and then go on to graduate, that leaving them out simply gets the story wrong.

Wise and worldly readers, I know I’m biased on this one, so I’ll throw it open.  Do you see the community college stigma fading?  And is there some sort of reasonably objective measure of it to check?