Sunday, November 11, 2018

Acceleration and Access

“I hate academies.” -- unnamed counterpart at another NJ community college

John Fink at the CCRC published a good piece last week looking at the ways that access to college acceleration programs in high school -- whether dual enrollment, AP, or IB -- breaks out across lines of gender and race.  The graphs make a complicated story simple.

The short version is that across the country, and in just about every state individually, white and Asian students participate in acceleration programs at higher rates than Latinx or black students.  I was struck, too, that female students participate at consistently higher rates than male students all around the country.

For community colleges, which are heavily involved in dual and/or concurrent enrollment programs, the data highlight a recurring dilemma.  It’s hard to balance equity and access in a society that isn’t equitable.

If we simply follow interest and resources, we will reinforce existing achievement gaps.  That’s the easiest thing to do, institutionally, because it follows political and economic gravity.  To the extent that we’re judged on “efficiency,” or “performance,” then going with the flow is the most rewarding way to look good.  

Consciously choosing to buck those trends brings with it cost and risk.  Students who need more resources to succeed, well, need more resources. They also tend to drop out at higher rates, which, in the current climate, gets blamed on the college.  We’ve made some changes to help higher-risk students do better, with some success. Some changes are relatively easy to sell, but some generate remarkable pushback. And in a climate of declining enrollments, and therefore declining budgets, any high-need population that doesn’t come with significant money puts a strain on the resources of the college as a whole.  As budgets get ever tighter, that argument gets progressively harder to win.

My unnamed counterpart, quoted above, used “academies” to refer to dual enrollment and early college high school programs.  She clarified in conversation that the reason she doesn’t like them is precisely that they tend to attract the high achievers who would have been fine without them, and they leave behind the students who could benefit most.  There’s truth in that.

That said, when it comes to dual enrollment, the horse is out of the barn.  Community colleges aren’t the only ones doing it. And if a local cc declines to participate, it simply leaves the field open to other schools for whom equity is much lower on the list of priorities.  In the absence of some sort of statewide or national decree, it’s a competitive field out there.

As a parent, I get it.  The Boy is taking IB classes, and thriving in them.  He’s a smart kid, and he’s up for the challenge. Holding him back wouldn’t help make the world a better place; all it would do is frustrate him.  So he takes the accelerated curriculum with my blessing.

I’ll admit that the gender gap raised an eyebrow, because it was so consistent.  I’ve read some pieces about selective colleges actually lowering the bar a bit for male applicants, just because if they don’t, the ratio hits a point at which the campus dating scene becomes a problem.  That helps TB, I guess, but it’s disturbing on a larger level. For whatever reason(s), the guys just aren’t keeping up. I’ve mentioned before that the gender ratio among our adult students is more lopsided than among traditional-age students, and that’s common across community colleges.  Men over 25 are much less likely to come back to college than women over 25. So whatever gaps exist in high school just grow more pronounced with time.

In each case, open-admissions colleges are faced with a dilemma.  Do we focus on accepting the world as it is, gaps and all, or do we make a point of intentionally trying to mitigate those gaps?  As resources get tighter, it gets harder to do both.