Expecting more, giving less to community colleges

At the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges a few months back in San Antonio, Texas, the buzzwords of choice were predictive analytics and retention strategies. I’m afraid big data’s stranglehold on higher education continues unabated, as does the notion relentlessly promoted by Complete College America that we must produce more college graduates, preferably sooner than later.

The retention and graduation rates at America’s two-year colleges have always been anemic, especially when compared with four-year colleges and universities. And the reasons for this are as plain as the nose on a two-year college student’s face. Students are typically burdened with a number of so-called “demographic qualifiers” that work against retention and graduation in both obvious and subtle ways.

The most obvious and perennially detrimental demographic is that most two-year college students must hold down a job, often full-time, while pursuing a degree. But if you visit Complete College America’s new data portal, where you can learn all about things like “performance funding” and “Full-Time is 15,” you may also notice precious little space is devoted to this demographic reality. In fact, all you’ll learn about working and going to school at the same time can be summed up like this: fuhgeddaboudit.

A more subtle bar to student retention and graduation at two-year colleges is also grounded in economics, but of the zip code variety. Where students live and which schools they attend tell us virtually everything we need to know when it comes to predicting college success. This country’s economically disadvantaged are typically educationally disadvantaged as well. Under-performing public schools turn out a disproportionate number of America’s marginally educated students. In other words, you don’t have to be a think-tank guru or a big data analyst to read the writing on the wall.

At the beginning of each semester, I tell students at the community college where I teach a few things they need to know right away. The first is that while higher education in Georgia is very competitive, the playing field is far from level. Students fortunate enough to be admitted to the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech or Georgia State have more resources available to them than the average community college student. And those resources will assist them in completing their education, in the job market and beyond.

Another thing I tell my students is that some of those occupying the seats of power in this state are not convinced the average community college student has what it takes to compete in higher education. Thanks in large part to Complete College Georgia and the Legislature’s decision to base state funding of public colleges and universities on retention and graduation rates, over the past few years, it has become more and more difficult to get admitted to a community college and stay enrolled.

With the impending consolidation of Georgia Perimeter College and Georgia State University, the enrollment of traditional community colleges in this state will shrink dramatically. Which brings me to one other thing I tell my students at the beginning of each semester: The consolidation may mean all of the resources currently available to students at Georgia State will also be available to them. But just in case that doesn’t magically happen when the two schools merge, they need to get on the ball and stay there.