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Community Colleges

Reality and Wisdom: The Challenge of College Completion

How high expectations, accountability demands, and support can help students succeed
University Business, Nov 2011

One of the more dubious notions to attach itself to higher education is the brash “right to fail.” While the intent to demand maturity and accountability from college students is understandable, the reality, and certainly the wisdom of such an axiom, is another story.

First, the reality: Prior to World War II, the likelihood of attending college was reserved for the children of wealthy or near-wealthy families. These students were expected to succeed, whether they did or not. 

The GI Bill of Rights of 1944 and the introduction of the Pell Grant in 1965 opened the door to college to the entire economic spectrum of the country. These two pieces of legislation and their subsequent impact are historic expressions of a democracy striving to fulfill itself. More Americans completed college than any other country in the world, by far, and the American workforce was the most productive in the world, again, by far.

But a great deal has changed. Funding for the nation’s educational systems, both K-12 and public higher education, has been in steady decline since the late 1970s. As revenue streams have narrowed, education—invariably the largest discretionary element of every state budget—has absorbed severe losses over time.

We are paying for it. The inevitable and predictable result of relegating education to discretionary status, as opposed to necessary, is the alarming decline in the education level of our population.

Once again, the reality: The United States now ranks ninth in the world for the percentage of our population achieving a college degree. Our 8th graders score 17th and 24th versus their international counterparts in science and math. We have managed to price millions of students out of college in recent years and we just dodged a lethal bullet when the Pell Grant escaped major cuts in the debt ceiling debate.

If that isn’t enough, this statistic should rattle our national mindset: In the nation’s 50 largest cities, the graduation rate from high school was 53 percent just two years ago when the study was completed by Editorial Projects in Education, publisher of Education Week. We’re losing our young people and the families they form to an unrelenting cycle of poverty.

Easy Prey

In front of these challenges, the doorway to the nation’s community colleges has swung ever wider. Economic strife and a weakened jobs outlook have sent students to the nation’s most cost effective institutions to upgrade their career prospects. But these students and their younger classmates emerging from the nation’s high schools are beset by both academic and personal challenges as they enter the higher education environment.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 53 percent of all entering freshmen are underprepared for college-level work. At community colleges and urban institutions, the percentage is significantly higher—as much as 80 percent.

Now add poverty to the mix. At Miami Dade College, 46 percent of our students live in poverty and 67 percent are low-income, a calculation established in the Johnson administration that has not been updated since 1965. In addition, 54 percent are the first in their families to attend college.

Now, to the wisdom of the “right to fail”: No one wants to fail. But our students bring a daunting set of vulnerabilities that are sometimes easy prey for what I call the “rationality of poverty.”

“How can you stay in school when we have so little money in the bank? We have a child and bills to pay. And I’m sure I can get a good job.” This is the script that kicks in, especially when grades are slipping and college seems like a good option for someone else, but not me. The opposite is also true, that success quiets that voice.

Our job as educators is to confront that voice from every possible angle, ushering students from the moment they have contact with the institution straight through to commencement. I remember attending a performance of “Cirque du Soleil” long before they played Disney World and Las Vegas. I parked in a dirt field and there they were, mimes and clowns among the cars, guiding me into their world. They had me in the parking lot, long before the performance began. We’re hardly a circus, but we should be in the business of environment building.

Commitment, Community, Completion

We should acknowledge and fully understand the forces at work in the lives of our students, and build a set of principles that permeate the environment. The principles are simple: Hold students to high expectations, demand that they be accountable for their learning, and build in an unprecedented level of support.
The above translates into MDC’s 3 Cs approach: Commitment, community, and completion.

For students, commitment implies the development of qualities that underlie academic success, including perseverance and resilience, accountability, and a willingness to engage with members of a learning community. For faculty and staff, commitment is certainly to excellence, but beyond that, to a willingness to endure the uncertainty of change and to participate in finding new ways to craft the learning environment.

Community may very well imply the dramatic reorganization of the institution. MDC’s Honors College is a prime example of a group of students, faculty, and support personnel banding together in support of each person’s learning. Such a strategy is a rather monumental challenge for an institution with 174,000 students. By combining technology and personal connections, we believe a new era of collaboration among all the participants in our community is possible.

The key to scaling may rest in our applications of technology. Imagine for a moment a model that considers the academic and personal challenges that each student brings to the college’s doorstep, and then forecasts or preempts the difficulties students encounter. Our support for students could then be specific and begin at the door.

Completion is the fundamental benchmark for students, faculty, and staff. But for all concerned, it must mean that deep and lasting learning has occurred. Completion should imply a beginning, each student exiting not only with a specialty degree in hand, but also with the internal designation of being a learner, one who has embraced that lifelong asset. 

MDC’s mission statement expresses the fundamental principle of “changing lives through the power of education.” And the logical extension is that we can change the tenor of communities and even the condition of the world if we support learning for a broader range of people. But we must acknowledge the realities we’ve created by our neglect of the last 30 years and the advances that have altered the world of work.

It is a daunting, but hardly impossible, task. If we recognize the necessity of educating our people—and the consequences of not doing so—then we have an honest chance of establishing a new and much needed reality.

Eduardo J. Padrón is president of Miami Dade College and chair of the American Council on Education.