More Thoughts on Community Colleges

By Debra Viadero — February 03, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

An entry that I posted a week or so ago raising questions about President Obama’s pitch, in his State of the Union address, for bolstering the nation’s community colleges has generated some debate in the blogosphere.

The best critique comes from Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the co-author of a thoughtful blog called The Education Optimists. As one of the architects of a paper that served as the blueprint for the president’s initiative on community colleges, Goldrick-Rab is an expert on that subject.

She argues in this post, that I “jumped to conclusions” when I suggested that, in some respects, for-profit or career colleges may have a better track record than the troubled community college sector. She says I neglected three important considerations:

1) Studies don’t show whether students attending career colleges differ from those attending community colleges. Are they more motivated, for instance, or financially better off?

2) If career colleges are more successful at, say, graduating students, research doesn’t off any definitive evidence on which career-college practices are linked to that success; and

3) Students who attend career colleges tend to accumulate more debt on average than their counterparts in community colleges.

“Community colleges have a long, rich history of serving this nation,” she writes. “Sure, there’s room for improvement, but without more solid evidence of which changes are needed let’s not jump to conclusions and tout the for-profits as a model to which they ought to aspire. We might end up in a bigger mess than we’re already in.”

All good points, I say. Still, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to look at what the career colleges might be doing differently, given the low graduation and completion rates at community colleges.

Over at the Quick and the Ed, Kevin Carey offers a much more searing attack critique, questioning my use of statistics from a study by the Educational Policy Institute,which was formed to support career colleges. Hey, it’s a blog, Kevin! Had I been writing a story, I would’ve had the full report.

I also commend to him the book After Admission: From College Access to College Success by James E. Rosenbaum, which I have read and which points to some practices that seem to contribute to the success that some career colleges are having at graduating students. I drew on those findings, too, in my blog entry, but Kevin doesn’t mention that.

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about some of the efforts that community colleges are making to increase student success, there’s a study out this morning from the MDRC research group. It reports on a randomized experiment at South Texas College to test a simple intervention aimed at improving passing rates in low-level math classes. Basically, the college recruited and trained employees to visit math classes and talk, very briefly, about the services available to struggling students there. The result: While there was no overall increase in passing rates or students’ persistence in college, the study did find some benefits for part-time students and those categorized as developmental or remedial.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.