29.1.16

PREPARE THE BUNNIES PROPERLY

Last week, Mount St. Mary College president Simon Newman committed a Kinsley gaffe, with a perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps over-the-top suggestion that some cuddly bunnies had to be drowned.  Regular readers know where I stand.  "Stop admitting unprepared people and calling it access.  And stop enabling underachievement and calling it retention."

At Slate, Rebecca Schumann concurred in part.
Newman’s clunkers are also part of a larger—and important—conversation about the best ways to help struggling freshmen. Amazingly enough, there are some cost-effective and relatively easy solutions to be implemented here—solutions that treat “force the student out” as a last resort.

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.  The admissions committee of any given institution is supposed to know exactly what it takes to succeed there—so if a student’s application isn’t strong enough to give her a probable chance of earning a baccalaureate from the 22nd-best regional university in the Northern United States within five years, reject that application. If an institution isn’t competitive enough to ensure a mostly strong freshman class, then that is a larger systemic problem that no amount of bunny-drowning can alleviate.
Indeed, there is much else to recommend in that article, including the dig she gets in at Bain Capital. Presumably Mr Newman took the Mount St. Mary job for purposes other than stripping the assets and closing the corporate shell down.  "If Newman wants a better bottom line, then he should try to strengthen his institution’s academics (or, if we’re being cynical, build a water park)."

That is, either recognize you are in the same business as the Ivies and compete for those students and that faculty, or compete with the sub-prime party schools.

But what do you do if your mission statement is that of the common carrier?  That's where Matt Reed finds himself.
I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.
Yes, and second chances are as American as the infield fly rule and French toast in the dining car. We don't track people for college or the trades from the age of twelve the way the Germans with their "free" college do.  And yet, as Robert Kennedy used to say, we can do better.
The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.
That last sentence echoes my "efficiency is a goal, but not the only goal" that two generations of economics students got from me in public policy classes.  But among the comments to Mr Reed's post we find gripes that too many disengaged and unprepared students sap faculty morale and erode the college's job placement performance.

State legislators in Wisconsin and Tennessee are already calling for state universities to identify the high schools that are sending Distressed Material their way, and perhaps, one of these days, those high schools will have to compensate the universities for the remedial courses.  Per corollary, how long will the legislators consent to funding two sets of high schools, one without ashtrays, and another with?  By the time the prospective collegian gets to high school, he might already have been passed along to middle school without the basics out of elementary school, passed along to high school without the middle school material, then sent along to college reading at the sixth-grade level.

There has to be a better way.  Perhaps, though, legislators are reasoning backwards.  First identify the high schools, then you might have a better idea where the underachieving middle schools and elementary schools are.

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