Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Community College Illusion

By Professor Doom

     I’ve certainly had a negative thing or two to say about community colleges, but I have an unfair advantage: I worked with such a college for over a decade, so I know, in detail, exactly what goes on there behind the scenes.

      I’ve pulled back the curtain on a few colleges, and shown that most of what goes on there is bogus. In fact, every community college I’ve looked at has a preponderance of pre-high school level (or lower, much lower) coursework, coursework that only exists to put butts in seats and to rake in massive amounts of student loan and grant money.

     Every few months a poster tells me that I’m wrong, with something along the lines of “You idiot, I got a great education at community college, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I even have a Ph.D. now, and I owe it all to community college. So, you’re wrong. And an idiot.”

      Hey, it really is possible to get a good education at a community college…but it’s more likely to be cheated out of years of your life, and to spend years throwing away time and money in worthless coursework.

      A good, motivated student will never see anything beyond the courses he takes. Since a good student will focus on real courses, it’s quite easy for him to miss what’s really going on.

     So, allow me to pull back the curtain at a really good community college; a reader told me as much, and I have to agree it’s quite possible to get a good education there. Instead of doing a full analysis like at previous colleges, however, I’m just going to focus on what a good student will never see.

      Today’s college is Valencia College, formerly Valencia Community College, in sunny central Florida. They’ve recently changed from a 2 year college to a 4 year college, so it’s tough to get recent stats, but, according to official stats, 24.3% of students will, eventually, graduate, given enough time (that could easily mean taking 6 years to get a 2 year degree, by the way).

     A 24.3% eventual success rate (and thus, 75.7% failure rate) might sound terrible, but this is actually a pretty good graduation rate compared to many institutions (the gentle reader is invited to peruse the state by state statistics at the previous link and see with his own eyes just how bad it is). The “good students” are in this 24.3% successful group, and never see that 3 out of 4 students never get anything out of this college but a big waste of time and money. There’s a college graduation ceremony, after all, but there is no college failure ceremony: the failing students are invisible, and a good student only sees the graduates at his graduation.

      Now, this school has over 40,000 students, and under 400 faculty. This means the faculty student ratio is over 1 faculty per 100 students. This is an abysmally bad ratio, although typical, but realize a good student will never notice this. Good students will take the real courses, which will have small class sizes (well under 30 like the old accreditation rules mandated, before admin changed them to enhance profits), and good students might possibly not take even a single course with 100 or more students, which is actually more representative of what goes on in college.

     Valencia is a good college, and has “honors program” courses. Those are the courses the good student will take, and will never even have a clue about the many, many sections of remedial, 9th grade or below, coursework that soaks up much of the resources going to “higher” education.

     Florida recently instituted social promotion in their higher education system. Students that cannot read, write, or calculate at 9th grade proficiency can now move directly into college courses. Now, good students learned 9th grade math in, well, the 9th grade, and, again, will never even have a clue about why so many seats empty out after a few weeks of classes.

      Even with social promotion, Valencia College, a good college with honors program courses, still has, according to a class schedule anyone can see, 137 “developmental” math courses that are not college credit anywhere, and 176 “Intermediate Algebra” courses that probably don’t transfer anywhere (because this is below the 10th grade level “College Algebra” that used to be remedial level math, over 30 years ago).

     Again, a good student will never see any of that, because a good student will have already passed the material in “College Algebra” when he took it in the 10th grade, or perhaps the 11th grade if he was even a little slow. There are also 19 sections of “Math for the Liberal Arts” classes, a bizarre title for a course—math is already a liberal art, but this is clearly a very watered down version of the watered down version of the watered down version of “College Algebra,” along with several other strange pseudo-courses that really just jerk students around.

      Now let’s do some math, here, and forget about the strange courses. There are 313 courses on this campus that aren’t even close to college credit, and won’t transfer. The faculty student ratio is 1 per 100, and this ratio is certainly going to be represented in the lower level courses (unlike the smaller upper level courses that are the only classes legit students see). So, we can estimate around 31,300 students are in these bogus courses, courses that, I emphasize, an insider knows about, but that the good student will never see.

     Hey, wait a second, there are around 40,000 students here, and 31,300 students are in the fake courses. Hmm, that means around 78%  (31,300/40000) are in the fake classes, and thus 22% of the students on this campus are probably legitimate. Is it really a coincidence that this is very close to the 24.3% completion rate? A little lower, yes, but a small percentage of remedial students do manage to get some benefit.

     It’s long been known that students who get out of high school and can’t perform at the 9th grade level really aren’t going to succeed in college, not on levels that justify handing money to everyone for it. Florida got rid of remediation on paper, but still keeps it all around, because of the sweet, sweet, checks from the Federal government for enrolling students into these courses.

      I’ve painted with some very broad strokes here, but only to get to the point more quickly: the fact that someone, somewhere, does well in community college is great, but does nothing to deny the truth that the vast majority of what goes on in community college is not college.

     Colleges will wheel out that one good student success story to show an example of what community college can be, but this is every bit as honest as highlighting a lottery winner and claiming that winning the lottery is the typical result of everyone who buys a ticket. Community college is all too often an illusion of sparkling success stories covering up wide swaths of failure, and students should tread very carefully when they come to these campuses.

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