Meeting Them Where They Are

The other day I read another article asserting community college’s have low academic standards…but pointing out that “Raising community college standards would mean failing a huge percentage of students…”.

Meanwhile, we continue to whittle away at and demolish developmental education programs designed to get community college students up to speed–because getting them up to speed takes too long.

I already wrote about this problem once in this post “Setting the Bar Too Low?“. But everybody in Higher Ed is still talking about the recent report released by the National Center on Education and the Economy, so I’m still talking about it too. And I think we all know that’s because something about it is eating at me. Don’t worry–I’ll tell you what it is.

But first, some background: In short, the report suggests the community colleges are not producing work-ready graduates because we do not provide students with the rigor to be work-ready. But that’s because high schools aren’t preparing students for college in the first place. And because community colleges are facing increasing pressure courtesy of the completion agenda, they’ve no choice but to lower academic standards–not doing so would make it impossible to meet the (possibly unrealistic) demands set forth by the completion agenda.

So here’s the thing: you can’t have it both ways.  You cannot ask community colleges to produce work-ready students and insist they reduce time spent remediating those who are under-prepared just so they can finish their education in a shorter period of time. That’s akin to asking for a miracle. We’re either going to spend the time getting them where they need to be to be work-ready OR we’re going to send under-prepared graduates into the workforce just to say we did it–and quickly!

In the article I first referenced, Marc Tucker of the NCEE is quoted: “Many 12th graders go to community college to do 8th- or 9th-grade work.”

I’m not sure if Marc Tucker knows this or not, but community colleges are open-door institutions (at least around here), meaning we take any and everyone. Well, technically, according to the State of South Carolina, we take anyone with a basic 8th grade education–we refer those without back to Adult Ed before they start their coursework with us.  We have placement testing–not admissions testing. And our placement testing determines who needs Adult Education. Anyone with at least a 37 on the COMPASS reading test can begin classes at our institution.  That score of 37 is supposed to represent an 8th grade reading level (and by default and 8th grade education). But other institutions set that number much higher.  In reality, the 37 is more likely indicative of a 4th grade reading level.  Students with scores of 1, 2, or 14 on the writing and mathematics portion of the test can enroll in our lowest level developmental courses.

So yeah–many students come to us to do 8th and 9th-grade work. But we don’t–as many of the articles about this report seem to suggest–simply lower our academic standards.  Rather, we provide them with developmental coursework to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. We offer them support services designed to help them catch up academically. If we just threw them into College Algebra or English Composition I, they’d sink like the Titanic. And they’d never have the opportunity to be work-ready, never earn a certificate, a diploma, or a degree. And so we offer them developmental coursework to bring them up to speed on the basic math, reading, and writing they need to be prepared to do college level work. Does that make their paths to completion/graduation longer? Absolutely. But we’ve been diligently working on ways to make their journeys as smooth and efficient as possible.

Look, we’re not Harvard or Princeton over here–we don’t subscribe to the “sink or swim” philosophy of Higher Education that more prestigious schools do. Our job as a community college is to meet our students where they are and get them where they need to be–for work, for college transfer, for life.  And that can’t always be done in 1 or 2 years–particularly when we’re faced with so many under-prepared students.

So how about let’s lay off the whole “community colleges lack rigor” thing. We have plenty of rigor (as I explained before). We’re not less than our 4-year counterparts. We’re just different and so are our students. Sometimes we need to do a little prep work, so our students can successfully handle that rigor. And that’s exactly why we should be supporting developmental education and making it better–not trying to make it go away. It’s the only way we’ll truly be able to reach all of our students and prepare them for the future.

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education

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