Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
This resistance is grounded in some legitimate concerns about fairness. Sacramento City College’s dean of planning, research, and institutional effectiveness, Dr. Marybeth Buechner, argues that expecting colleges to transfer students into four-year schools who enter far below college level is like “an oncologist who’s slapped because their patients sometimes die.” But it has ultimately led the community college system to choose reporting practices that obscure the dropout problem while allowing everyone from legislators to college presidents and deans to evade responsibility for the part of the problem that is correctable. For example, the college system’s official measure of student progress and achievement inflates success rates by considering the performance of an unreasonably narrow cohort of students, the ones who have already enrolled in a math or English class above the remedial level and have completed at least four classes of any kind. Everyone else—about 60 percent of the actual student population—is deemed not to be a serious degree seeker and is dropped from the calculation altogether. By this generous methodology, 52 percent of California’s degree-seeking community college students achieve their goals or demonstrate progress toward them. But independent efforts to track the success of a larger group of students that could reasonably be assumed to be degree seekers— 60 percent of them, by one credible estimate—suggest a far less rosy picture, in which only a quarter to a third of students who want to transfer or finish a one- or two-year degree program actually do.
These numbers are hugely contentious in community college circles. One unflattering study, published in 2007 by Nancy Shulock, the executive director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento, set off a firestorm among insiders and the local media, and made her persona non grata throughout California’s community college system. Even midlevel campus bureaucrats have a surprisingly thorough knowledge of Shulock’s work, and will readily argue why her calculations are wrong. (Meanwhile, the fear of being “Shulocked”—becoming the object of intense scrutiny and personal criticism—appears to have spread among critics and observers of the system. More than one researcher I spoke to was very leery of revealing numbers or analyses that cast a negative light on the community colleges.)
Arguments over who’s right tend to hinge on a debate over what exactly community colleges should be held accountable for when it comes to student performance. Administrators point out that many people who enroll in community college do not necessarily aspire to earn a degree, and that it’s unfair to expect them to graduate students who are there merely for short-term job training or a one-time refresher course. In fact, California community colleges do collect information from entering students about their intentions, but many administrators disregard it on the assumption that students don’t know much about college or how hard it will be to reach their stated goals.
California’s community college troubles are not unique to the state; underfunding is a nationwide problem and in many states two-year colleges are facing budget cuts in the coming year. The need for remediation is not unique to California’s students either, or to particular racial or ethnic groups—it’s a sad fact of American education that low incomes and low educational skills go hand in hand, regardless of other circumstances.
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