I took the train up to Philadelphia yesterday to sit on a panel at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention. The topic was “Community Colleges: Who Should Judge Them And How.” My position was that insofar as the main purpose of community colleges is to prepare students to succeed in further education and work, the best way to judge them is to see if their students succeed in further education and work, taking into account where those students were academically and economically when they arrived in college. In the information age, when it’s never been cheaper or easier to gather large amounts of data and track this kind of thing over time, there are really no resource or logistical barriers to comprehensive, long-term evaluations of college success. The only thing standing in the way is the colleges themselves, who are deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of this kind of evaluation.
I’ve made the same argument about four-year colleges and universities many times. It’s often not well-received, and I understand why: a lot of these institutions aren’t really in the education business. They’re in the sorting business, or the prestige business, or the research business, or the professional sports business (great game last night, btw). The status quo method of judging colleges puts them at the top of the heap in terms of status and resources, so they have nowhere to go but down.
Community colleges, by contrast, are at the bottom of the heap. They get fewer public resources to do a more difficult job. They’re selling what economists call an inferior good–something people consume less of the more money they have. To most people, every four-year college is better than every two-year college.
This is, of course, completely wrong: there are community colleges out there that are clearly teaching better than many if not most four-year institutions, precisely because they’re in the education business. Two-year institutions have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by shifting to a way of judging higher education institutions that puts more emphasis on student learning and success in the workplace. Even if it turned out that the flagship university really is doing better than the the local community college, the actual difference between them is almost surely less than the current perceived difference.
Yet while the overall tenor of the conversation in Philadelphia was less openly hostile than I’ve seen from the four-year crowd, and a bunch of people came up to me afterward to say “I think you’re right,” it was obvious that few people were comfortable standing up in a room full of their peers and saying “We should embrace this approach.” I think that’s because there’s something in higher education that’s even more powerful than rational self-interest: a culture of politeness, where administrators are loathe to ever speak ill (in public) of their peer institutions, or to embrace any kind of measurement system that would, inevitably and properly, identify some institutions as low-performing.
Hopefully the time will soon come when the two-year institutions, along with the many less selective four-year universities, realize that they have nothing to lose but their chains.