Undoubtedly, it is a great thing to be talking of more money for Community Colleges. But it is the part of the Initiative that has expectations beyond financial accountability that worries me. Check out this paragraph from the White House Press Release Fact Sheet on the Initiative:
Fund Innovative Strategies to Promote College Completion: Nearly half of students who enter community college intending to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college fail to reach their goal within six years. The College Access and Completion Fund will finance the innovation, evaluation, and expansion of efforts to increase college graduation rates and close achievement gaps, including those at community colleges. Promising approaches include performance-based scholarships, learning communities of students, professors and counselors, colleges tailored to promote the success of working adults, and funding formulas based on student progress and success as well as initial enrollment. Resources would also be provided to improve states’ efforts to track student progress, completion, and success in the workplace.
Now, really think about what that looks like. We need to find ways in our classrooms to graduate more students who come to an open enrollment institution. Specifically, Obama wants 5 million more Community College degrees and certificates by 2020.
The last statistical data we have for my College, 66 per cent of our students were below the age of 24 with the highest percentage of students being in the 18-19 year old cohort. That means the vast majority of my students just graduated from High School and some 60 per cent of them require remedial courses before they can take a College level class; although they need to have 12 hours to qualify for financial aid (which over 30 per cent of them do--and we are very, very cheap to attend)so they will be in a mixture of remedial and college level if it can be managed. Our poor counselors are very creative and very tired. For example, many of our college classes in Sociology, Psychology, History, and Government have lowered their standards so that you can take them while taking remedial classes; despite the reality that the textbooks are written at a reading level beyond which they are tested to be able to read. Yes, read that again. True dat. So, in short, for a variety of reasons--and there are many--I teach a lot of very young not necessarily conventionally "successful" students and, yes, they disappear. A lot.
In the old days--say, twenty years ago when I first started, we thought that was a good thing. We figured that maybe they needed to go work a few years and figure some things out. Mature a little. Sow their wild oats. Earn some money. Figure out they couldn't earn enough and then they would come back. And they did. And they were better students. And life was good. Or good enough.
But slowly over the course of my career and more so in the past 5 years we have faced pressure to retain them. They track our drop rates. You are a failure if you don't retain them. So, you make accommodations and find yourself thinking more and more about how to keep them even when they don't want to be there--at least not now. Gradually, you are made to feel responsible for their success. And that makes it worse because when you begin to absorb that responsibility they lose it even more. There is simply much more negotiated terrain in your interactions. Case in point, I don't know of one faculty member who has not re-visited their make-up policies in the last five years. I even know faculty who have started to allow retesting. That is right, they let them take the test, again, when they haven't passed the first time.
*Sigh*. Even when you feel compassion for their youth and apparent ignorance, its just so hard because you can't be for them what they should be for themselves.
And in the meantime, you still have a core of good students who do want to be there. Some of them are very, very good. Some of them are positively heroic. Every single Community College Instructor I know can tell you of the single mom who juggles kids and job and shows up with her notebook out and her highlighter ready who hasn't been able to afford a trip to the dentist in years; a young gay man who has been kicked out by his family and is living on friend's couches and pulling all "A"'s or even struggling with "C"'s because he can't get a ride to class; or the young man who showed up for class and told me to wake him up if he fell asleep because he was driving a bread truck all night and he was staying up for my class and he didn't want to miss it. And you just know that you really, really want them to be proud of that degree and not sell it short. And it feels like we are being asked to sell them short.
Of course, the solution envisioned by the Initiative is some kind of special magic which we will be able to do with our teaching which will "engage" students and make them successful, perhaps those alluded to "learning communities". But does any Anthropologist really know of any instance when you can successfully change individual behavior? You can make the condoms available but has anyone truly been able to make someone put them on when its not his/her own idea?
Wouldn't it be nice if we could just give us Community College people the money we need to function properly without unreasonable expectations?