Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
But it’s hard to say what real impact his initiative will have. Primarily, the plan will provide resources in the form of competitive grants to colleges and states—an approach that won’t help much in colleges with little capacity to start with and in states with weak central leadership, where the money may not be enough to wrangle all stakeholders into line. Critics also argue that it’s not all that much money (annually only 4 percent of total government expenditures on community colleges nationwide) and that none of it will go toward the colleges’ biggest problem of all: insufficient general funds. The initiative also falls short of establishing a true “performance measurement system” of the kind recommended in a recent report by the Brookings Institution, which would provide clearly defined goals for student outcomes and standard ways of measuring progress toward them.
Given what’s at stake economically, we should be looking much more closely at what value community colleges add and demanding that they do more. For decades, states have refused to confront the obvious: the decision to funnel the most academically at-risk students into colleges that receive the fewest resources has turned out to be something of a disaster. And both policymakers and community college administrators have indulged in the polite fiction that community colleges are not so different from four-year institutions, and accordingly deserve the same autonomy and academic freedom. But this laissez-faire attitude ignores the degree to which community colleges’ remedial programs—if not the rest of the colleges’ curricula—is functionally more like high school. There is plenty of disagreement about the use of test-based accountability in higher education, but the place where it should be least debatable is remedial education. Though teachers and students tend not to like testing—and there are plenty of ways to do it wrong—there is little argument that better assessment would help us know more about remedial students’ skill levels, how much they’re growing, and how to serve these students better.
As the relative value of the high school diploma has declined, more students want and deserve a real shot at a college education, and for many low-income people, that shot will begin at a community college. The first step is to embrace a new kind of American college student. The next is to invest in and reform the institutions that serve those students. That will mean hard work and focused attention from teachers, administrators, and elected officials at the highest levels of government—the same virtues we demand of community college students themselves. At her class at Sacramento City College, Jacinth Thomas-Val begins each day by providing her students with an inspirational quote, one of which reads: “The will to persevere is often the difference between success and failure.” Let’s practice what we preach.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.