Two-year colleges have been identified by many experts, including President Obama, as crucial to improving the economy and rescuing millions of Americans from dead-end jobs and lives. One northeastern community college is making big changes, as many such schools are doing.
I asked one faculty member at the college to give me an insider’s view of these reforms for this series of columns on community colleges. She fears that using her real name would cause her trouble at work, so I will call her just Nancy and won’t identify her school, which in many ways is typical of community colleges throughout the country.
She agreed that her college needs to do better with first-year students. But the college’s leaders are pushing for bigger numbers — more students, more graduates and more funds — and that emphasis on growth does not always lead to more learning, she said.
A middle-aged woman signed up for a full schedule of classes, Nancy said. “She told me there was a lot more work to do than she was expecting, but she had to take a full load to get financial aid. She was feeling overwhelmed and wishing she could afford to go part time,” Nancy said.
“There is allegedly research out there that says that full-time students are more likely to graduate on time than part-time students,” she said. “What I have not found is research showing that our kind of students, those with full-time jobs or family responsibilities, would do better going to school full time. … As someone who went to graduate school gradually, I don’t believe it.”
“The financial aid program wastes money when people have to drop classes because they can’t keep up with a full-time schedule,” she said. “And if they drop courses, the dropped course counts as an F on their GPA, which makes it harder to keep their financial aid. Providing financial aid for part-time students might save the government money.”
“Shortly before the semester begins there is a big push to get students to enroll,” she said. “There are a lot of people, peer advisers, helping all comers register.”
One young man was reluctant to register, but the advisers wore him down, countering every objection. So he gave up and enrolled. “I commented that it didn’t seem like the kid actually wanted to be here,” Nancy said. “’It doesn’t matter,’ the advisers said. ‘He just has to be here.'”
She worked with a seminar course for first-year students, a crucial part of the national effort to reverse community college drop-out rates. Eighty five percent of newcomers say they want a four-year college degree, but after six years just 15 percent get one. Faculty working on that introductory course at her school, after trial and error, moved to a textbook that would help students look at reasons why so many classmates skipped class and didn’t complete assignments. They also asked the students to write about their college experiences.
At a meeting after a new supervisor took charge, the first year seminar instructors were told to “eliminate the writing assignments and choose a different textbook,” Nancy said.
The seminar instructors were told: “Our current ninth-grade reading level textbook is too difficult for our incoming students. Make the course have a 100 percent pass rate, no matter what,” Nancy said. She said this last bit of advice eliminates the usefulness of the course as a tool for helping students adjust to college expectations and reduces it to social promotion.
The instructors were told to “make the course more tangible,” she said. “Students like practical advice, like how to register for classes. They don’t like introspection and they should not have to write.”
I asked Nancy about a frequent topic in this series — the effort to get more first year students out of remedial classes which cost them money but earn no credits and into credit courses. Several colleges have lowered the entrance requirements for those credit courses, and provided special hours for remediation at the same time.
Nancy saw a financial motive for lowering standards in order to bring in enough students and tuition to justify the colleges’ existence. Colleges with very low graduation rates may not continue to be funded by the federal government’s financial aid program.
“It is difficult to achieve a higher graduation rate honestly, and it is relatively easy to cheat, or at least to bend the rules,” she said.
That means, she said, more pressure on faculty — particularly adjunct professors who can be easily fired — to keep grades high and requirements weak. Writing assignments, for instance, are frowned upon.
Nancy’s picture of life in community colleges clashes with what I read in research papers. Scholars writing under their real names don’t question college leaders’ motives. But they agree with Nancy that the colleges are not producing as many well-trained graduates as the country needs, so there might be some truth in what she says.