So…I was just minding my own business the other day when I came across this article entitled “Low Bar, High Failure.” The author, Paul Fain, suggests that at the community college we have set our standards too low–and that, worse yet, students are struggling to meet our very low expectations.
I already explained that community colleges are NOT the rejects of higher education, thank you very much. Really, though, I don’t think our standards are low. And I’m pretty sure that if you asked my students, they’d agree. In fact, ask some students from our Bridge to Clemson program, and they’ll tell you they’d pick an English or Math or Biology class at Clemson (our local 4-year university) over one of ours any day–because Clemson’s are easier. So quite frankly, the claim the we’re “cheating our students” would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive.
We do have high rates of attrition and failure, though, because our students are under-prepared when they get to us. This is because we “educate” them in a flawed K-12 system that fails them academically (Please note I am placing the fault with the system and not with the thousands of dedicated educators who fight within that system every day). So we’re playing catch-up a lot. Which–to go back to an earlier point–is why we cannot punish students who need remedial/developmental coursework. But it doesn’t mean we lower our standards. In fact, the faculty I know fight against the very idea every day.
With that said, administrative pressure to increase “student success” and graduation rates may lead to lower standards if we’re not careful. Paul Fain has it right when he suggests that community colleges react to “the inadequate academic preparation of incoming students, a majority of whom require remedial coursework in college.” And, increasingly, that reaction is influenced by outside pressures based on unrealistic expectations and numbers that often mean nothing (the same thing that went so terribly wrong in the K-12 system). Yeah, our graduation rate is in the single digits…but FYI: we successfully transfer students at a significantly higher rate–because it’s a huge part of who we are and what we do.
Our bar is not set too low. But we need to be careful here. We need to remember that when politicians with little to no experience teaching make decisions about “student learning,” the students are the ones who lose. Because the numbers they use to measure “success” very rarely actually measure real learning or success. More often, the pressures they create with the demand for those numbers negatively impacts student learning and student success. In fact, if we give way to those pressures, if we focus on the numbers at the expense of real learning, we will fulfill the thesis of Fain’s article: “Community colleges set a low bar for students during their first year of enrollment, with lax academic standards.” Ugh.