David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day Time In The Switching Yard

March 5, 2022

Community colleges face challenging image problems all the time. A Chronicle of Higher Education advice column from just last week really brought this home.  In "Stop Playing It Safe: The Peril of the Generic College," Aaron Basko argues, as he should, for differentiation in higher education, at one point, saying, ". . . we reach upward to be like the institutions we envy. Public flagships want to be like the Ivies. Public regionals want to be like flagships. Private regionals want to be like national liberal-arts colleges. What if we had the confidence to be ourselves, but the best versions of ourselves?" (As usual, the CHE link above leads to a paywall.)

What sector of higher education is missing here? Yep, community colleges. Apparently we have no aspirations because we aren't even on the same stage with the real stars.

Basko is not alone. Look at almost any commentary that broadly talks about the higher education landscape, and community colleges are not in it (or on it, like the unnamed roads on the map). When we are mentioned, we are often discussed as the place where college should be free because, after all, the product is cheap (most of us suffer the same expenses as our more elite colleagues). In some places where my colleagues are doing this "free" route through scholarships, outcomes are a mess.

I think about all this because on Monday I go into a strategic session with my college leadership that is ostensibly about how we define who we are moving forward.

I am ready to posit that we are a giant switching yard and too bad the world can't see the beauty in being that. Students are our freight cards, and we try to move them, some re-assembly required, to the main line where they can reach their destinations. We are not, as a general rule, the destination.

I was painfully reminded of that this week when a faculty member told me of a really smart dual enrollment student in his Calc III class.  The professor was going to write a letter to help the kid get into MIT.  How's that for depressing?  We are providing advanced math credit for a 17-year old, being funded by his high school (who is probably going to complain about our tuition rate), to better prepare him to enter one of the finest colleges in the world.  SMC will get no credit for the student. He is not a completer for us (look at any criticism of higher education and see the "completion" agenda:  what percentage of the students graduate?). We can't even offer any of the other upper-level classes that might reduce his debt with MIT because we can't offer 300 level or above courses.

Mr. MIT-bound will never graduate from us. I guess the solace is he also will never count as a "starter," either, since all dual enrollment students at any college are generally considered high school guests and not major-declaring.  Later when he has made millions of dollars designing, let's say, a breathing device to help survive nuclear war or climate change, he will not be an alumni we can cold call, asking for a small donation.  At best, my Calculus professor will be remembered with maybe the side-bar of him working at South Western Michigan College [sic].

This is just one freight car we have to move from one track to another.  Ms. Displaced Worker is going to go to a staging yard so we can prepare her and others to go to their ultimate destination, perhaps in health care or in criminal justice. 

Down the hill, because we will have to rely on gravity instead of locomotives in some areas to move all the freight around, we will take on significantly under-prepared students wanting to go somewhere, but having no clue of either where or how unprepared they are to do so.  We have to rely on gravity because state funding is not going to pay us to use a locomotive to bring them up to speed.  Florida started this trend with the "developmental education must go" mandates.  Other states are racing to get in line behind them.

Most depressing is that the transfer yard, the place where I most want to hang out, is a logistical mess.  We have to hook a perfectly good passenger car to a locomotive headed to a public regional, but the couplings don't align. And if some passengers want to go to a different public regional than where this one is headed, they better be ready to be switched again.  With a constantly changing railway schedule, often not even written down for those of us in the switching yards, we hope we have programmed that passenger car correctly.

You want to know what my biggest frustration with higher education pundits is?  I'm down here in the switching yard and they only travel by private jets.

*Title with thanks to Warren Zevon's "Nighttime In The Switching Yard" from Excitable Boy.