What we talk about when we talk about success

There’s a federal committee considering changes to the way two-year colleges are measured for funding. No doubt anyone would be as elated as I am to hear that the future is in the hands of a federal committee. Feel the joy, my people. Feel the love.

Who is on this committee? Are there any actual two-year college faculty members? Are there any people who have set foot on a two-year college campus in the past thirty years?

I ask myself these questions every time I see a new article on this issue. The question of who is on the committee can be easily answered, though: fifteen committee members, three of whom are two-year college administrators.

To be fair, the committee is looking at other educational issues as well, other means of measuring success. It’s meant to represent a cross-section, not a particular interest group, and maybe it does that. Maybe. I’d still like to see some actual two-year college faculty members on the job, but that’s just me.

And in case we think drastic changes in the way two-year colleges are funded might just be so much empty talk, think again. It’s happening. Tennessee, for starters, has already gone this route. Texas, among other states, is looking toward similar changes.

This is another by-product of the recession. It is, at least in part, a response to the funding crunch at a time when budgets are going down and enrollments are going up all across the country. Of course community colleges are asking for more money. Of course states are looking for more ways to save money. Add to the mix Obama’s recent community college summit and call for more emphasis on two-year degrees, and you end up with this whole lovely cacophony of conflicting opinions and conflicting needs.

I don’t know how far this trend will go. I don’t know whether Mississippi will end up following these other states to shift funding toward “success” rather than enrollment.

What I do know is this: (1) Questions of how responsible schools have been with the money already handed out are inevitable during times of economic crisis; (2) Shifts toward funding based on “success” rather than on enrollment are also shifts away from open access policies.

Community colleges were created to serve the democratic ideal that everyone deserves an opportunity even if it is an opportunity to fail. Open access missions mean that they do give people chances where no one else will.

Those with low ACT scores, those with difficult personal circumstances, those with personal motivation issues are all given a chance (and sometimes a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th chance) at the community college. These are our high risk populations. They are less likely to complete credit hours, programs, and degrees than other students, and during tough economic times when unemployment is high, these high risk students are often some of the primary groups driving up enrollment at the open access college. If funding is based on completion of credits, programs, and/or degrees, however, those colleges will have no choice but to become a little less open. They will have to start turning away students out of pure self-preservation.

Maybe this is what the tax-payers want. Maybe they don’t want their money funding the third semester the same student takes College Algebra. Maybe they don’t want their money funding the fourth time your own kid decides he finally knows what he wants to be and goes down to the local cc to sign up for classes only to drop out again by midterm.

Maybe they don’t really want to foot the bill for opportunity for all, even the opportunity to fail.

I don’t know, but I do know this one more thing: The day a college is told that funding depends on completion of credit hours is the day grades start magically going up. No college would withstand that kind of pressure without putting pressure on the faculty to pass students by hook or by crook.

Understand, I’m not arguing against measures to increase success rates at two-year colleges. Something does need to be done. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “Of all students in college, about 45 percent attend these institutions,” and “About half will drop out before their second year. Only 25 percent finish in three years.”

Those are pretty shocking numbers, especially if they apply only to those students who start out as traditional freshmen taking full-time loads. Still, we can put those numbers in perspective if we read on to see that “sixty percent of students take remedial courses at community colleges.”

People can take remedial courses in college and go on to succeed in degree programs. We all have to believe that if we work in a two-year college. We have to believe that remediation matters.

We also know, however, that students take remedial courses in college because they have been identified in some way by some measure as unprepared for college classes and/or as unprepared to complete academic programs.

Thus, when we talk about measures of success, and when we talk about completion rates, and when we talk about funding based on graduation rates, we are really talking about this issue of tax-payer funding for college remediation. I happen to believe it is worth our money to give everyone a chance, even if it ends up being a chance to fail. I wouldn’t be where I am doing what I’m doing if I didn’t.

And, by the way, I attended a community college in Mississippi for two years. I never graduated. Four years after leaving the cc, I had a master’s degree, and five years after that I had a Ph.D. I never did graduate from my two-year program, though. I also took College Algebra three times before I finally made that hard-earned B. I’d make for a pretty bad statistic in a funding formula based on completion rates.

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