I’m in Seattle, where about 250 people, mostly grantees of the Gates Foundation, have gathered to talk about increasing the rate of success in higher education, especially among low-income students. My role is to lead a conversation with three individuals who represent three different slices of the industry: public community colleges, for-profit institutions, and on-line universities.
The Foundation was kind enough to suggest some opening questions, such as “How can we serve more low-income students better, faster and cheaper?” and “What do each of your institutions have to offer?” and “What will higher education look like 5-10 years from now?”
Maybe it’s because I am still medicated after my recent knee replacement surgery, but I find my mind wandering to other, perhaps more provocative questions. Such as:
Everyone is talking about ramping up ‘success’ and doubling the percentage of low-income students completing their degrees from the current 26% to 52%. Admirable as that is, how is that possible when these institutions operate in a world in which institutional success is not rewarded and institutional failure is not punished?
Does it make sense to have state money flow to these institutions based on enrollment on a certain day in October? Shouldn’t at least some of the money be dependent on the number of students who make it through to the end, successfully?
Picture in your mind a restaurant at the Grand Canyon, the only place around where you can get a meal. There’s always a line out front. Very few repeat customers because everyone’s a tourist. What interest does the restaurant have in serving better meals? Likewise, these institutions operate on what economists call a ‘churn model.’ As long as the number of incoming students equals those leaving, it doesn’t’ matter economically whether the students graduate or flunk out or drop out. How can that model be changed?
Given that more than half of incoming community college students are required to take at least one and often three or more semesters of remedial education, shouldn’t community colleges be working at the high school level? Shouldn’t they give their placement exam to all HS juniors, just to let them know where they stand? That seems like a no-brainer, but in fact only a few community colleges bother.
Why are remedial courses organized by semester? If the institution can tell students what their deficits are, shouldn’t they be able to study up and then try to test out? Why not make it like the test for a driver’s license? Who benefits when the time is inflexible? Certainly not students, who after all want to get beyond remedial and into real college courses?
About one-third of community colleges now have either divisions or departments of developmental education, separate organizations that need failing students in order to justify their existence. What interest do they have in eliminating the need for remedial education? Don’t they, by definition, have a vested interest in seeing that the flow of failing students continues?
Educators talk about the student’s “Right to Fail,” which means operationally that they don’t limit the number of times a student can take and fail remedial math, for example. I’ve met students who tried four, five and six times without success. Is this responsible behavior for an educational institution, or are they just cashing the checks?
Community college students are often heroic in their determination. Last night we heard one person talk about her 9-year plan for earning an Associates degree, while another, a policeman, joked about his “30-year plan” for earning his Associates degree. But why should the burden fall on them?
Why are these stories told from only that vantage point, the struggling, heroic, determined student? Why don’t we dig deeper? If we did, we’d learn that the classes were oversubscribed by a factor of ten, or that the classes needed were offered only during working hours, or that courses taken at one institution were not accepted at another. That is, why don’t we look at institutional behavior more carefully?
Walmart just announced a partnership with a for-profit education institution, American Public University. Employees will receive a 15% discount on tuition, and the company is setting aside $50 million over three years to help with costs. Is this a new player in the game? Is this a threat to the status quo? Is this a good thing?
California community college students are leaving in droves, according to so recent research. And they are going to the for profit institutions, despite those places having exceptionally high failure rates. What does this mean? Have students simply gotten fed up with not being able to get the classes they need, when they need them? Is this the canary in the mine, an alarm bell for public institutions? Now California has a partnership with Kaplan, a for-profit institution, in which students get a small discount (15%, I believe). That in fact raises their credit-hour cost by a factor of ten. Who benefits here?
So many questions, so little time. And such an important issue. If you have some answers, please share them in the comments.