Minding the Gap
RECENT REPORTS HAVE shown that America is losing ground in the international education arena, ranking 24th out of 29 countries in math, 15th in reading, and 20th in science on the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment. And questions have been raised about how well prepared students are for college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76 percent of postsecondary institutions offered at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course in 2000.
Community colleges are acutely aware of the "achievement gap" in American education, considering that two-year institutions enroll 11.6 million students, many of whom may be either returning adults or students who aren't ready for a four-year institution. At the end of May approximately 200 people gathered in Princeton, N.J., at a symposium co-hosted by the American Association of Community Colleges and Educational Testing Service (ETS) to share research, data, and ideas meant to address the gap and help close it. (Presentations are available on the ETS website.)
When it comes to achievement gaps, most of the attention is focused on elementary and secondary schools, explains Michel Nettles, senior vice president for Policy Evaluation and Research at ETS. "We felt it was important to bring attention to [the gap at the postsecondary level]."
Remedial education came up frequently during the symposium, with one attendee pointing out that the term "remedial" is inaccurate because it implies that the students had the skills to do the work at one point. During a presentation on student achievement in math, Linda Serra Hagedorn, chair of the Department of Educational Administration and Policy at the University of Florida, pointed out, "The achievement gap begins to show in community college." Drawing from national research, she explained that the level a student reaches in high school math is an indicator of college success. "I call it a proxy," she noted after the conference. "Being able to succeed in math shows an ability to persevere.
"We can all participate in the blame game," Hagedorn said of colleges blaming high schools that in turn blame elementary schools. "One of the answers is that getting through college is an academic experience," she added. In her research, she has found that secondary school to college programs focusing on self-esteem are not as effective as ones that have strong academic components such as tutoring and counseling.
Dolores Perin, associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, shared findings from a reading intervention program conducted at Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York system.
"We should focus on what developmental education is really doing," Perin said. Faculty usually focus on preparing students for the first level of college credit class work, such as freshman English, "but they need to prepare for the whole college curriculum."
The study caused some controversy, Perin explained, because the work was selfdirected and self-paced; traditionally stu-dents need a high level of support. "Being college students, that is what they are expected to do," she pointed out. Students in 48 developmental reading and writing classes were invited to participate. They received either science texts broken into 10 segments, or 10 random topics. She found that many of the students did not want to be in a developmental class because it was repetitive for them. Although the students were considered almost ready for college, they still struggled with the science texts. Perin said the study challenged the idea that if students are prepared for one course they will be able to generalize the knowledge. "They will do well on opinion pieces, but when given dense text they will struggle," she concluded.
In response to a question, Perin said there is "hidden remediation" at community colleges with faculty that are creative about finding ways to help students read and write.
With college costs on the rise, community colleges have become a way for students to reduce the expense of going to school. At the same time, the institutions continue the mission of providing access to lower income constituents.
LaShawn Richeburg-Hayes, a senior research associate at the social policy research organization MDRC, spoke at the symposium about the Louisiana Opening Doors Project. At two community colleges, 1,019 students were given $2,000 scholarships, distributed over the course of two semesters and contingent upon success in their classes. They also had to check in with a counselor. Students who agreed to participate were selected by lottery; if they were selected they received the scholarship, and if they weren't they were free to continue with their original post-high school plans. Richeburg-Hayes explained that this random assignment method, which took place before registration, is a good way of controlling for a variety of factors, such as family situation, grades, and other characteristics that would explain motivation.
During the course of the project, the group of students receiving the scholarship persisted in school at a higher rate than the control group. (The study was cut short because of Hurricane Katrina.) "This shows that money matters, not to be obvious," Richeburg-Hayes said. "Having a scholarship for people who aren't necessarily merit scholars works."
"Based on this study, I can't speak to the question of whether need-based aid is necessary," she added. "But it does show that merit-based scholarships are not the way to go." The important part community colleges play in workforce expansion and allowing people to return to school to obtain certificates should not be overlooked.
More data may be forthcoming. Richeburg-Hayes said there are discussions with institutions in New York, Ohio, and New Mexico about replicating the scholarship study.
After the conference, Hagedorn pointed out that the question of accessibility is broader than just getting into college; it includes what students have access to once they are enrolled. "Students who are prepared for college and go to community college have access to the full-time professor. The ones a step behind get the part-time [professor]," she said. "Many part-time faculty are very good, but the fact is many have other jobs and no office hours."
The "cooling effect" of part-time faculty on student success was the focus of Daniel Jacoby's presentation. Jacoby, the Harry Bridges Professor of Labor Studies at the University of Washington-Bothell, shared data tracking the decline of tenure track faculty in higher education. The more part-time faculty an institution employs, the lower the graduation and transfer rate. He pointed out that part-time faculty are usually hired by course, have limited rehire rights, and labor under the threat of unemployment.
Students suffer because these faculty members often don't have set office hours; they also aren't available as advisors. "If we've made good decisions and hired good [faculty], we should make the investment in them so they invest in the school," he concluded.
Many of the presentations focused on the seriousness of the problems facing community colleges, concedes George Boggs, president of AACC. "The solutions will be harder to come by. We're working on it."
Hagedorn looks toward the silver lining: "Students at community college do better than we expect. They just take longer." She suggests community colleges set their own standards for success, rather than using the same measure that four year institutions use. "Why are we only worried about graduation rates? That's a four-year [institution] focus. It makes sense for them, but not for community colleges," she says. Students at community colleges often have short-term goals, so finishing a course would count as reaching their goal. "Graduation is a plus and an important measure, but it's not the sole purpose of going to community college," she points out.