Friday, March 10, 2006

Diamonds and the Community College

The Chronicle Review* and CNN recently report about a new push, including monies coming from Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, to get more top community college grads attending top tier universities. These stories identify an increasingly obvious trend education and economic heavyweights like Anthony Carnavale, Stephen Rose, and William Bowen have identified: our top universities' clientele increasingly resemble country club and resort guests, far from the collective and romaticized struggling student archetype.

Joshua Wyner, Vice President of Programs at JKC, writes for both CNN and the Review that although schools like Amherst, University of Virginia, Harvard, and the University of Michigan are attempting to redress this trend by offering more grants to extremely low income, extremely high achieving students (more a statistical oxymoron than rule). The University of Virginia for example under AccessUVA offers students admitted under standard criteria who come from families making less than 200 percent of the poverty line for a family of four (approx. $37,700 in 2004) a free ride. Sounds pretty good right? Well in 2004-05, the first year of the program, 200 students were admitted under AccessUVA’s zero debt provision or 5.4 percent of all incoming students. Those students are truly diamonds in the rough. Note also that when AccessUVA was created the cutoff was going to be 150 percent of the poverty level for a family of four or $28,274. There was a reason they made the cutoff more liberal. These students are truly diamonds in the rough. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the intent behind Access programs. But they’re not exactly aggressive and don’t fundamentally change anything. The cold hard of it all is that kids from poverty don’t go to top tier colleges because they don’t do well in general in K-12 schools—culpable along with a myriad of other at-risk factors slamming kids.

But more specifically, back to Wyner’s and JKC's proposal—to get more community college transfers into the very best schools. This sounds great but I wonder about attrition. Schools like my Alma matter could afford to take on transfer students, in fact they couldn’t afford not to since a certain amount of first and second year students would inevitably drop out. Around 30 percent would eventually dropout and these numbers are actually very good among universities and colleges. Average college completion among the states within 6 years of enrollment hovers around 55 percent. Completion for two-year programs (think community colleges) is nationally at 30 percent among students completing in 3 years.

But what about the best of the best colleges and universities Wyner and JKC are talking about? These schools graduate a very high number of their students. Think 90 percent. The question theses articles fail to fully address is what is the incentive for a university to take on extra numbers, numbers that could potentially significantly hurt their bottom line? Remember it only takes a few students to bust a budget. They have to be housed after all, they need roofs over their head when taking classes. It would seem much more probable for targeted efforts at the type of equity JKK is shooting for to originate at colleges and universities that are in the top tier, say top 100, but not the tippy top—top 25.

I don’t intend to sound like a downer. I think there is great promise among community colleges and Wyner is right about California working pretty well. But nationally we’re not there. I’d like to see some data to go with the claim that “economically and racially diverse groups of high achievers are graduating from our community colleges every semester.” And I would think Wyner and Jack Kent Cooke should not be so narrow in their belief that the very best institutions should be the change agents here. The point being made is important. Beyond everything else, it would seem like a good idea to expand collaboration between top 4 year institutions and community colleges. Maybe they'll find more of those diamonds everyone keeps talking about.


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