5.5.13

IT MAY JUST BE MISTAKEN.

Thus does the dean at Pioneer Valley Community conclude a meditation on remedial, er, developmental, college courses.
Go ahead and criticize developmental classes if you want, but get it right.  They’re well-intended, but flawed, holdovers from an earlier time.  They’re not anti-student conspiracies, financial aid scams, or profit centers.  If they were, the for-profit colleges would have embraced them.  Instead, the for-profits ducked them, and community colleges are starting to figure out that the for-profits may have had a point, even if for different reasons.  Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s nefarious. It may just be mistaken.
Some of the comments on the post suggest that remediation, er, development, doesn't feel like college to students, and contributes to student disengagement.  Since remediation comes close to paying for high school twice, perhaps that's not totally out of place.  Yes, that post is from eight years ago.  I've seen nothing to reconsider my position.

The role of high school classes in college is still subject to debate.  A Michael Petrilli column in Bloomberg notes the social waste.
What if the government decreed that three years hence, students would only be eligible for Pell aid if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?
There are some unquestionable positives.
To be considered successful, the high schools serving these young people would need to get their college-bound students to a college-ready level, not just get them to graduation. They might offer more college-prep courses, especially for those pupils with the most promise, and make sure the teachers are up to the task.

Likewise, state officials concerned about college completion would be prodded to ensure that their high schools produce college-ready graduates, maybe boosting graduation standards accordingly. Better yet, they might start to include college matriculation and graduation rates in their high-school accountability systems.

As for colleges, without a federal funding stream for remedial education, many would decide to become more selective, only admitting students who are ready for credit-bearing courses.

This would probably raise the academic tenor of the institution, for students and professors alike. And with fewer students using Pell aid, we could afford to make each grant more generous, removing financial barriers that force well-prepared low-income students to leave before graduation, or not to come at all.
Like any policy proposal, it comes with tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs matter at Pioneer Valley.
My issue with the Bloomberg piece isn’t based on a defense of developmental ed as it currently stands..  It’s based on what the piece identifies as the source of the problem.  As far as the piece is concerned, students are capable or they are not.  We’re better off telling the incapable to take a hike and calling it a day.  Let the cream rise to the top, and let the rest sink.

Um, no.

Community colleges are less than maximally efficient, by design.  They’re built to serve several purposes, one of which is to provide second chances.  I’d hate to think that the academic performance you show by age 17 is all you would ever be allowed to show.  Anyone in the cc world has seen adult students whose teen years were spent in pursuit of the Keith Richards merit badge come back older, wiser, and on a mission.  Those students complete degrees, get jobs, pay taxes, and bring a refreshing “cut the crap” attitude with them wherever they go.  We see untold numbers of single Moms who had kids as teenagers come back and become nurses.  Why that’s a bad thing, I’m at a loss to say.

At a basic level, what looks like an affinity between the Hoover position and mine -- neither of us is happy with the current state of remedial ed -- is based on entirely different critiques.  The Hoover critique is that some people will just never have what it takes, and we can identify those people, reliably, by age 17.  My critique is that we’re wasting too much talent in a system that frustrates people.  If you believe that talent is scarce and discrete, take the Hoover position.  If you believe that there’s more out there than we might guess from looking at a given group of high school seniors -- not to mention adult students whose high school years are well behind them -- then the point of changing remediation should be to offer more chances, not fewer.

Once you figure out which assumptions you hold, the arguments around financial aid follow.

By all means, go ahead and work with K-12 systems to help them better align their goals with college readiness.  (Most states don’t even require four years of math in high school, amazingly enough.)  But let’s not make the mistake of writing off everyone who wasn’t buffed to a high gloss by their senior prom.  Some pretty amazing people weren’t.
Yes, and how many of those people might have been better served by high schools that were more assiduous about better equipping people to deal with those chances that might have presented themselves?
In The America That Worked(TM), the common schools understood their mission to include preparing informed citizens and inculcating the habits of the upper middle class. Yes, that America was more sanguine about young people who didn't develop those habits opting out. On the other hand, forty years of enabling fecklessness and calling it inclusion puts us in a position where a respected public policy shop is calling for federal money to make community colleges more effective at doing what the high schools used to do as a matter of course. Perhaps the liquidity constraint that is going to bite on the government will encourage policymakers to look at restoring the older order, for lack of resources.
Perhaps, though, when you have eliminated the impossible, for lack of a better alternative ...

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