Monday, June 22, 2015

Articles for June 22, 2015

Higher ed as a commodity? Colleges have only themselves to blame (washingtonpost.com)
This is a response to Hunter Rawling's post College is not a commodity, stop treating it like one (June 9), and it's pretty reflective of the other side of the balancing act colleges are facing. The hard reality is that colleges need tuition to operate, and not all would-be tuition-payers would be convinced by the message author Jeffrey Selingo feels higher education needs to promote. 

Selingo offers three reasons why the commoditization of higher education is its own fault: 

  1. For decades, higher education has promoted the personal economic value of higher education. 
  2. Students are not solely responsible for their success. The college does matter. 
  3. Colleges have turned the four-year degree into an assembly line of getting in and getting out as quickly as possible. 
In some ways, these points demonstrate a failed attempt to resonate with a larger part of the public with the least amount of change away from the traditional as possible. Most students want what every other consumer wants: the minimum he/she has to spend in dollars and time for the maximum value. We can wax poetic about how enlightened one becomes in college through the quality of discourse and delivery of expertise, but is that really what is most meaningful to our audience? Is this truly the reason why students go to college? (And why can't students have more than one reason for going to college?) 

The second point might speak about this the best of all. Selingo makes an excellent point: "It depends on...whether the student makes the college or the college makes the student." He refers to what he calls "undermatching" in which "smart students, usually low-income, could succeed at an elite college but never apply to one or go to one. When they go to a less-selective college they reduce their chances of earning a degree, according to the research." While I'm still a little uncomfortable with the research (and a little confused about exactly how it relates here), this reflects the culture of a college, which is kind of a chicken-and-egg argument. Colleges have some degree of control over what the culture of a college campus is, but colleges have also spent a lot of resources on #1 and #3 that there often isn't much of anything left for student organizations and student support departments that foster that culture, so it's left to the students. 

Yes, higher education needs to play a more active role in developing a culture that lends to student success; no, it won't be a magic silver bullet that gets college students to graduate. Choosing the right college entails some fairly deep, introspective, and mature processes that not all students looking to start a college career are ready to encounter, but colleges are under a lot of pressure to build enrollment. 

Yes, higher education has engaged in some practices that has made it act like a commodity. We need to strike that delicate balance that will allow us to include both the economic and personal value of graduating from college. Higher education needs to become flexible enough to utilize both sides in order to reach the largest possible audience. Sacrificing one for the other devalues the latter.  

I have a soft spot for talk about developmental education. For all the researchers and administrators who seem to think eliminating developmental education will not eliminate academic unpreparedness, my experience has told a different story. As a developmental English instructor, I saw the true value of (at least) our developmental sequence as much more than content readiness. I felt the frustration of seeing the same comma, spelling, or structure error over and over no matter how much in-class practice, workshop, application, or times it was on a test. But I also saw students become comfortable with drafting, confident with stating an opinion, recognizing relationships between ideas, and seeing the meaning behind grammar. Our developmental classes worked because they gave students a chance to warm up to the way the college worked, figure out the quirks of their laptops, and find themselves as a student before getting slammed with Boolean and a group presentation on the first day of technical classes. 

Placement tests made me uneasy even before articles were writing like researchers had time machines, but higher education seemed anxious and desperate to place blame for the numbers of students who never made it out of the developmental sequence. There's a big difference between saying that "...up to a third of students who placed in remedial classes on the basis of the placement tests could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better," and "'We find that placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college," as given in this article back in 2012. The first clearly implies that it's the developmental classes, the second implies it's the test. Which got more attention? 

The non-cognitive limitation is mentioned in the article, as is a reference to the need for a more individualized assessment of readiness. For technical colleges, this is the way we need to move. We know from recent articles that we can't assume what we once did about high school grades and a diploma, and the value that connectedness and the social dimension of a college campus can have for retention and graduation. 

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