Where the action is in higher education

 Should everybody go to college? What’s a non-traditional student? What’s a “second-chance” institution? What are community colleges doing? Is American education as big a mess as some make it out to be? These are some of the issues that I discussed in the following Q & A with Mike Rose, a highly respected professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of several books. His latest is “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” which looks a new at the role of higher education in the social and political life of the country. You can read an excerpt here. And here’s my discussion with Rose:

Q) Can you tell us about the book and why you wrote it?

A)  It’s about people coming back to school – to adult school or community college particularly – and about the importance of such “second-chance” institutions in a democratic society. These are very American institutions. The Economist magazine, never shy about criticizing the American educational system, called the community college a “magnificent” achievement.

 All the attention goes to the elite colleges and flagship universities, to the places that end up in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. But I think the real action is going on in our wide sweep of community colleges and state colleges. That’s where most Americans – from teachers to firefighters – get their education.

 One other fascinating piece of the story is that close to 45% of undergraduate students are “non-traditional.” So the “non-traditional” student is rapidly becoming the norm. They are not coming to college right out of high school, they typically work, a number have kids, many go part-time. And a fair percentage have tried some kind of post-secondary education before.

 I use the stories of returning students to illustrate what is possible – and I hope to inspire others who might be contemplating further schooling – but also to illustrate what we need to do to improve these vital institutions. And, finally, I would like the book to remind us of all we stand to lose if we keep cutting the budgets of adult schools, community colleges, and the like.

 Q) Can you say more about those last two points? What we need to do to improve these institutions, and the dangers of current austerity measures?

 A) Let me take the austerity question first. My home state of California provides a striking example. We have a robust system of community colleges, 112 in all, one-tenth of the nation’s total. Over the last few years, they have had to cut classes, eviscerate summer offerings, trim staff and services. By one count, they have had to turn away or limit enrollment for close to one-half million students. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees adult education, the adult school budget is one-quarter of what it was the year before. One quarter! Among those affected are people seeking occupational training, or studying for a GED, or trying to learn English. Economists of all ideological persuasions are warning about the negative long-term effect on the economy and the formation of the next generation’s middle class.

 Though California’s situation is severe, many other states across the country are enacting significant cuts to these core institutions, and many, many people – more often than not people from low-to-modest income backgrounds – are suffering for it.

 A) Your response makes me think of another issue that is in the air these days, so before you answer my question about improving these institutions, let me raise it. You’ve been discussing the importance of getting more education, but some economists are asking if it makes sense to steer every young person into college.

 A) I consider that issue at length in the book, but let me try to sum up a few thoughts here. First, as the current mantra about getting students to be “college and career ready” suggests, I do think ideally everyone should have the opportunity to attend some kind of post-secondary institution – that kind of opportunity is fundamental to a democratic society.

 The issue being raised, though, is this: We know that only about fifty or sixty percent of students who start a two- or four-year college achieve a degree, so should we be encouraging everyone to go to college, when the success rate is not great, when they might incur significant debt even if they do complete, and when the labor market might not accommodate them anyway? Conversely, there are good jobs available in mid-level technical fields and some trades and services that do require training, but not a degree. Still, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicate that people with a bachelor’s degree or beyond, on average, will earn significantly more over a lifetime than people without a degree.

 This is not an easy issue, and the typical economic analysis of it misses a lot. Some people are just not drawn to the traditional academic course of study, no matter how well executed. Urging them to go to college, at least at the current stage of their lives, might not be the best idea. Yet it is also true that young people from low-income backgrounds have much less exposure to the variety of post-secondary options that exist. Furthermore, we have decades of research that demonstrates real inequality in the nature of the advising they get regarding college. So before people decide that college is not for them, we need to be sure that they have solid information.

 So much of the current back and forth on the college issue focuses on economics alone. But there are other reasons to go to college, and they are voiced by my UCLA undergraduates as well as by the people I interviewed in occupational programs: to learn new things, to broaden understanding of the world, to be a better parent and citizen, to, in some cases, change one’s life. These goals can be achieved in places other than college – some jobs, some youth programs – but college at its best fosters them.

 Q) Let’s return to that other question I asked: What can we do to improve these “second-chance” institutions?

 A) Some institutions do better than others with similar populations of students, and this powerfully demonstrates that institutional response matters: how instruction and counseling is scheduled and structured, the degree of faculty and staff development, financial aid and services.

 There are several broad conceptual issues that have to be at the center of institutional change. The good news is that some people at some institutions are already doing this work, and doing it brilliantly.

 We have to fundamentally rethink remedial education. Let me use writing as an example – though what I’m going to say applies to reading and mathematics as well. The traditional remedial writing curriculum is based on a faulty understanding of literacy and learning. This curriculum is familiar to all of us: a focus on grammar and usage separate from a deep involvement in writing. The assumption is that we have to clean up the basic elements of language before people can take on serious writing and thinking. Research hasn’t validated this approach, and it can stall rather than foster linguistic and cognitive growth.

 We also need to rethink the hundred-year-old division between the “academic” and the “vocational” course of study, for it isolates different kinds of knowledge and skill, reducing each in the process. The rich cognitive content of work is trivialized (for example, all the systematic reasoning and problem solving in the mechanical trades) and a fuller engagement with the sciences and humanities through the world outside of the classroom is cut short.

 And we need a truly democratic philosophy of education that guides us to see in remedial instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society. This philosophy also would honor multiple kinds of knowledge and advance the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational education.

 Q) It strikes me that these are not only post-secondary issues, issues involving these “second-chance” institutions, but issues involving education at large.

A) Exactly! And that’s why we need to keep the big picture in mind, the whole sweep of education in the United States, both its remarkable achievements and its clear failings. Just to take one example: If we want “college and career ready” to be more than empty rhetoric, we’ll need to think systemically. The faulty approach to remediation, the problems with the academic-vocational divide – these issues affect K-12 as well as the institutions I’m writing about now. We need to create the opportunity for educators to talk to each other across institutional levels.

 Q) You mention American education’s “remarkable achievements.” We don’t hear that kind of talk much these days, do we?

A) We seem to have a hard time simultaneously analyzing the good and the bad. I argued some time ago in “Possible Lives,” which deals with K-12, that a focus only on our failures leaves us without images of the possible, limits our imagination. One result is that we come up with one-dimensional remedies – high-stakes testing or vouchers, for example. Another result is that by seeing only failure, the public can give up on the schools. That’s happening now.

 Our second-chance institutions have big problems; for example, on average, only thirty percent of those entering community college complete a certificate or degree in four years. Clearly we need to do better. And some institutions are, as I mentioned earlier. We need to tell their stories and the stories of those students who succeed and use those examples as part of our attempts to reform.

 Let me give you an illustration of the kind of thing that concerns me. Right before Christmas, there was a powerful story in The New York Times by Jason DeParle, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” The story is built around three young women who excelled at a low-performing high school in Texas and then went off to college with big dreams. All three have had a very rough time of it, and four years after high school, only one is close to getting a degree. DeParle is a nuanced writer, and everything he uses the women’s stories to illustrate is accurate: from widening economic inequality, to institutional barriers, to the individual women’s lack of institutional savvy.

 But reading the story, I was struck by how many of these kinds of accounts we read about poor people and school, stories of insurmountable obstacles and dashed dreams. There is occasionally another kind of story, the polar opposite: the kid from the South Bronx or South Central Los Angeles who is studying something like robotics at Harvard. These are powerful narratives with a long history in our society.

 There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic, but they are hugely important. They are stories of people who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but they succeed. Not infrequently, they have benefitted from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of people who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.

 If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We need stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic, but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · January 9, 2013

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