Thursday, January 28, 2016

Save the Bunnies!: A Response to Rebecca Schuman

By now, you’ve probably heard about Simon Newman, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, and his statements about the need to throw out high-risk students in order to improve his school’s retention numbers.  He memorably goaded reluctant employees with “You just have to drown the bunnies...Put a Glock to their heads.”  I responded in this space a few days ago.

I was glad to see Rebecca Schuman take on the same topic, since I’ve been a fan for a while.  But her response was badly off-key.  She correctly identified President Newman’s core motivation as improving student retention numbers, and rightly criticized him for trying to cook the books.  She followed, though, with suggestions for better ways to improve student completion rates:

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.

I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.  

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.  

In fact, one of the student-success practices gaining currency at community colleges across the country involves moving away from single placement exams in favor of considering high school performance.  The goal is to place students in the courses in which they’re likeliest to succeed.  I’m a fan of that shift, since it recognizes that student ability shows itself more fully over four years of day-in, day-out work than in a single standardized test.  But whether a given college uses a test, transcripts, or whatever else, admission is a given; placement refers to the level at which they start, rather than to whether they’re allowed to start at all.

The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.  

Schuman makes exclusion “the most important of all possible suggestions.”  That’s where we disagree.  The beauty of an unglamorous sector is that it takes inclusion as a positive good.  It dares to spend resources on people nobody else will.  It doesn’t just take the cutest bunnies; it takes all who show up.  And it achieves real successes with them, despite budgets a small fraction of what their exclusionary counterparts get.

Epistemological humility is a choice, but it’s a choice rooted in a larger truth.  People will still surprise you, given the chance.  Arguing over whether the bunnies should be drowned in their senior year of high school or first month of college misses the point.  We don’t really know who will succeed until they show us.  Let them.