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Subject:

The Folly of Academic College for All

From:

Dan Kern <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 9 Oct 2009 14:02:48 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (326 lines)

The Folly of Academic College for All

by Robert Cherry

August 24, 2009

This commentary discusses why community colleges ill serve their students by
emphasizing the transfer function even to their weakest prepared students.
Instead, more students would benefit from being directed towards certificate
programs and associate degrees, enabling many to attain careers that are
more lucrative than the lowest quartile of four-year graduates.

Historically, the primary mission of community colleges was the transfer
function: preparing students to move on to four-year colleges. More
recently, however, there has been a movement towards also preparing students
for immediate entry into the workforce with certification programs and
two-year associate degrees. This commentary will argue that community
colleges should give greater priority to strengthening and expanding their
vocational programs. These programs are in the best interest of many
students who are often ill-served by the continued emphasis given to the
transfer function.

 

My position is not very popular with many education theorists who claim that
this shift creates a new form of tracking. Vocational programs, critics
argue, lure students away from the more financially rewarding four-year
degrees into dead-end low paying occupations. Lines hardened after the 1996
Welfare Act. Critics were upset that the government provided very few
long-term educational options. Katherine Shaw and associates (2006) asserted
that welfare recipients were "increasingly directed toward the most
ineffective forms of training rather than toward higher-quality
college-level education" (p. 7). Similarly, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson
(2004), refer to the risk that "community colleges operated to divert or
'cool out' unprepared students into low-status occupations away from
academic programs leading to baccalaureate degrees" (p. 94).

 

Given the long history of inappropriate tracking, one should not take these
concerns lightly. They should not, however, blind us to evidence that most
students entering community colleges have inadequate academic skills forcing
them to begin with remediation courses that they have difficulty passing.
Despite expanding support services, Mathur and associates (2002) estimated
that one-third of welfare recipients leaving California community colleges
had completed no college credits, and another 30 percent had less than
twelve credits. In Ohio, Bettinger and Long (2005) found that among those
full-time students who had to take a remediation math course, after four
years, less than 18 percent had completed their associate degree, and only 9
percent were either still enrolled in or had completed a four-year college
degree program. Nationally, after six years, only 10, 20, and 30 percent of
black, Latino, and white students, respectively, enrolled at community
colleges had attained either an associate or bachelor's degree (Bailey,
2006).  

 

This evidence has not, however, caused critics to change their assessment.
They focus on the substantial gap between the median earnings of those who
attain four-year degrees and those who do not. Those who succeed, they
assert, enter the middle class while those who do not are sentenced to a
lifetime of economic deprivation. Given the choices, critics believe that
there is no alternative to their focus on the transfer function.  

 

This comparison ignores the large overlap in the earnings of workers with
different levels of educational attainment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics
(2009) estimates that one-half of all workers with some college or an
associate degree earn more than the lowest quartile of those with a
four-year degree.  Indeed, a Gates Foundation study that tracked Florida
students found an even greater overlap. Looking at workers in their mid-20s,
the lowest quartile of those with a four-year degree had earnings of $29,000
or less. By contrast, comparably-aged Florida workers who had completed a
certificate program had a median income of $37,000; for those who completed
an associate degree, the median income was $31,000 (Jacobson & Mokher,
2009). As a result, a four-year degree does not guarantee higher earnings
than if students had instead completed a vocational program. And what about
the unintended consequences for students who are dissuaded from entering
vocational programs they could have completed and instead are encouraged to
strive for four-year degrees that they are unable to attain?  

 

Instead of redirecting students to vocational programs, community colleges
often seek ways for students to avoid taking remediation courses.
Buttressing this circumvention, Bailey (2008) found that remediation made
little difference in graduation rates or college credits earned. At Bronx
Community College, a special program was instituted to help the weakest
prepared students navigate their way through their remediation courses. This
Freshmen Initiative Program was able to increase pass rates substantially on
all three remediation exams. It did not, however, have a significant effect
on graduation rates, which remained well below 30 percent (Ritze, 2005).  

 

More generally, the vast majority of instructors and counselors make every
effort to maintain student confidence and academic goals. They minimize
their students' weak skills by blaming the high schools and relabel
remediation courses as developmental. As a result, most remediation students
do not realize the long odds they face. Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen, and Person
(2006) lament,

 

Although national data indicate that the dropout rate for students with
three or more remediation course areas is much higher than for those with
only one, we find that students with high remedial enrollment do not in fact
perceive their chances of completing their degree as lower than other
students. (p. 85)

 

While many schools have expanded their vocational options, Bailey (2006)
finds that most community colleges "are increasingly seeking to follow a
traditional academic collegiate model, rather than focused occupational or
technical alternatives." Since vocational programs are often not perceived
as a core function, they are vulnerable to cutbacks. In addition, colleges
may balk at tailoring courses to employer demands or having them meet at
work sites and at times most suitable for a company's employees. 

 

For-profit colleges have filled the void by providing more focused
vocational curricula. Their faculty makes sure that course offerings mesh
with degree requirements. Instruction is more likely to use labs and tie
their academic courses to occupational curricula. Given their emphasis on
the transfer function, community colleges develop remediation that is deemed
necessary for students desiring to go on to academic programs. By contrast,
for-profits tailor remediation requirements to their vocational programs.


 

While many for-profit schools take advantage of students, saddling them with
high debt and limited credentials, increasingly these schools have improved
their performance in order to gain national accreditation. Whereas
for-profit colleges only enroll 4 percent of all students enrolled in
two-year colleges, their students obtain just over 10 percent of all
associate degrees and almost one-quarter of all certificates awarded
(Bailey, 2006). As a result, between 1997 and 2006, the share of
certificates awarded by for-profit institutions rose from 39.0 to 43.5
percent, while their share of associate degrees awarded rose from 15.7
percent to 25.6 percent (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008). 

 

This commentary focuses on the poor outcomes for ill-prepared students who
enter the community college system. Faculty should stop highlighting
individual success stories that allow them to rationalize keeping the
transfer function alive for all incoming students and focus instead on the
low probabilities of four-year degree attainment. Most important, they
should discard the notion that even students who just eke out a four-year
degree necessarily will have superior earnings potential compared to those
with vocational certificates or associate degrees.  

 

Once a more realistic understanding of the needs, goals, and potentials for
ill-prepared students is understood, community colleges can better serve
these students by adopting the best practices found in the for-profit
sector. This would require more secure funding for support services and
giving a greater role to vocational instructors and program directors than
they currently have.  

 

A refocusing of community colleges is particularly valuable for many black
students. During the 1980s, the collapse of central city manufacturing and
the crack-cocaine epidemic undermined family and employment stability in
many urban black communities (Cherry, 2007). Children growing up in such a
disruptive and depleted environment were at risk for educational failure.
While an "academic college degree for all" vision may soothe consciences of
some educators and advocates, it does not help a large share of victims of
circumstances who may benefit most from vocational programs. 

 

 

References  

 

Bailey, T. (2006). Increasing competition and growth of the for-profits. In
Thomas Bailey (Ed.) Defending the Community College Equity Agenda.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 2006.

 

Bailey, T. (November, 2008). Challenge and opportunity: Rethinking the role
and function of developmental education in community college. CCRC Working
Paper #14. Community College Research Center, Columbia University.

 

Bailey, T., Jenkins, D., & Leinbach, T. (June, 2005). Is student success
labeled institutional failure? CCRC Working Paper #1, Community College
Research Center, Columbia University.  

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics, News Releases (First quarter, 2009), Table 4:
Usual Weekly Wages, Retrieved August 27, 2009, from
<http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.t04.htm>
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.t04.htm

 

Bettinger, E., & Long, B. (Spring, 2005). Remediation at the community
college: Student participation and outcomes. New Directions for College
Communities, #129.

 

Cherry, R. (2007). Welfare transformed: Universalizing family policies that
work. New York: Oxford UP.

 

Jacobson, L., & Mokher, C. (January, 2009). Pathways to boosting the
earnings of low-income students by increasing their educational attainment.
Hudson Institute.

 

Mathur, A., Reichle, J., Wiseley, C., & Strawn, J. (2002).  "
<http://www.clasp.org/publications/credentials_count_final.pdf> Credentials
count: How California's community colleges help parents move from welfare to
self-sufficiency. (CLASP, May 2002).

 

Rosenbaum, J., Deil-Amen, R., & Person, A. (2006). After Admissions. New
York: Russell Sage.

 

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Table P74: Number of undergraduate
career educational credentials awarded: United States, 1997 to 2006.
National Center for Educational Statistics.

 

 


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24,
2009
ID Number: 15755, Date Accessed: 10/9/2009 11:35:43 AM

 

	

 

 


About the Author


*	Robert Cherry
Brooklyn College

ROBERT CHERRY is Broeklundian Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College. He
has written extensively on poverty and economic discrimination. 

 

 

 

Dan Kern

AD21, Reading

East Central College

1964 Prairie Dell Road

Union, MO  63084-4344

Phone:  (636) 583-5195

Extension:  2426

Fax:  (636) 584-0513

Email:  [log in to unmask]

 

http://www.studentveterans.org/

 

Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is
it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks
the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a
position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it
because one's conscience tells one that it is right. (Martin Luther King,
Jr.) 

Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner. Put

yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and

the way he understands it. (Kierkegaard)

 

To freely bloom - that is my definition of success. -Gerry Spence, lawyer
(b. 1929)    [Benjamin would be proud, I think.]

 


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