David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
The Hits Keep Coming

September 21, 2013:  The Hits Keep Coming

I attended another Student Success Summit in Michigan the last two days. Every September, this conference is put on by the Michigan Community College Student Success Center in an attempt to corral the best practices of the state's community colleges in a decentralized higher education system (that means there is no single entity with the authority to mandate that all institutions of higher education in Michigan do anything).  It is a very noble effort by a small group of hard-working, dedicated people to try and impact the Michigan higher education landscape.

For many of us, the messages we hear attack much of what we have believed about the purpose of college, even the specific purpose of community colleges. Our beliefs are not always exactly the same. As a result, the people at the Center are conductors trying to get hundreds of single-minded instrumentalists all in tune.

Knowing that, the themes that resonate through the Summit have been immortalized in music already.

1) Completion/Incompletion:  How can we get more students to complete their degrees in acceptable time?

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" -- The Smiths ("Typical me, I started something and now I'm not too sure")

Students of my generation chose undecided majors frequently and didn't become the pariahs of college campuses when they did so.  These days, that decision apparently puts you on the highway to misery and broken dreams. So, colleges and universities push students into career choices right away (frankly, this starts in high school).  I still hate this mentality, but given how expensive college now is, I am not sure we can afford to let students "try" out a lot of class just to see what they like. 

"Hello Goodbye" -- The Beatles  {"You say 'stop,' I say, 'go, go go.'"}

The problem for community colleges is that when we finish with students, we want to say "go, go, go" but someone else is often saying "stop":  usually the four year institutions.

For almost two years the community colleges and public four-years in Michigan have been trying to agree on a Michigan Transfer Agreement, a common general education curriculum that MUST be transferable from any Michigan community college to any Michigan four-year.  The challenge is always at the four-years, who want to believe that any number of their courses (a composition course, a pre-calculus course, a lab science course) are inherently "better" than what is supposed to be equivalent from a community college.

Not only do we have to battle with the expectations of the general education core, additional classes beyond that basic set of hours are always up for debate.  While a Western Michigan University may take our 200-level Psychology course as part of their social work degree, Grand Valley State may not, because they believe their curriculum is uniquely different from Western Michigan's.  It is simply tiring to hear that the community colleges need to complete students when the common ground formed by completion at us and entry at four-years is not common at all, and in fact may be ground littered with land mines.

(By the way, the B-side to "Hello Goodbye" should be Sha Na Na's "Get  A Job." I would argue that our completion attempts for students in Career and Technical Education paths, two-year degrees that lead directly to jobs, have their own version of this mis-matched agenda.  Our advisory boards for these programs continually stress the need of graduates to have better soft skills, or writing skills, or math skills, and yet the accreditation and certification bodies of those industries aren't giving us room in the curriculum to add those skills. Even if they did, it would almost certainly mean adding another year to the program, with financial aid almost certainly used up.)

2) Structure and Choice:  Explicitly mark the pathway to completion.  Letting someone find his or her way is tantamount to negligence.

"Freedom of Choice" -- Devo {"Freedom of choice is what you got/freedom from choice is what you want")

"It's All Too Much" -- Joe Jackson {"They say choice is freedom/I'm so free it drives me to the brink")

Stop giving students so many choices.  Make clearer pathways to degree completion.  Build in more structure along the pathway.  These are the mantras we hear over and over.  If you have 120 general education classes, you probably have 110 too many.  When you offer your course on 20th century urban literature, you are doing it to please a faculty member not to serve students.

As you can imagine, this is a very tricky conversation with faculty, who are trained in specialized fields, but when hired for community colleges are being told that those fields have no place there.  Instead, such a faculty member should be happy teaching composition and an occasional introduction to literature course. 

What kind of automatrons are we creating?  In a world where citizens are assaulted daily by a world now black and white, rarely grey (Fox News vs MSNBC), how do we hope to change a culture to the ideals of critical thinking?  The people who push the completion agenda are sympathetic to these fears and generally say that we need to find a happy medium between 120 choices and 1 choice. However, the completion agenda seems to be the only choice for long-term stability.

3)  Acceleration:  Speed up the path to a degree, especially for remedial education.

"Accelerate" -- R.E.M. {"No time to question the choices that I make"}

Students clearly get lost in the progression of courses to a degree.  Between required developmental courses to get them up to speed and pre-requisites and co-requisites, many students simply don't get to graduation.  So, we need to remediate them quickly, often through placement into college level classes immediately and then supporting them with additional resources.

"Drop The Pilot" -- Joan Armatrading {"Don't use your army to fight a losing battle"}

The charitable organizations, such as the Gates Foundation, behind many of the nation's completion initiatives often stipulate that if you use their money, you don't run pilot programs.  Scale straight up to initiatives that touch thousands of students, not just dozens.

Generally, this approach rubs academics the wrong way.  We don't try out new drugs on the mass populace; we don't release new technology without some beta testing.  However, as smaller programs produce moderate success, we ponder how in the heck we could elevate that program to a campus with 3000 students, 15,000 students, 40, 000 students, or 100,000 students.  Such is the overwhelming feeling that consumes you when you watch a presentation on the use of supplemental instruction in gateway courses, for example, at a small community college.


The elephant in the room at these conferences is always financial aid. After all, as Pink Floyd sang, "Money, it's a hit."  And yet we never hear of financial aid reform.  Perhaps I need to go to a Student Success Plummet for such conversations.