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2015 May 21 - 03:04 pm

Measuring Success: Beyond Test Scores and Grad Rates

In late March, 2015, Economist magazine reporter Emma Duncan wrote:

“IF YOU LEARNED that the top dogs in a particular market were the same as 100 years ago, you would probably surmise that the business concerned had suffered a century of stagnation. In the case of higher education, which has been dominated by American universities since the early 20th century, you would be quite wrong. It grew slowly for the first quarter-century, gathered pace in the middle half and took off in the fourth quarter. You might then conclude that the top dogs were truly outstanding, or that there was something very odd about the market.”

I have for many years retained a persistent concern about statements such as this. I wonder: Is one, if not the primary one, of the principal oddities referred to above the fact that “higher education” is not the same sort of “market” as is automobile manufacturing and purchasing, airplane production, or entertainment delivery? And is “higher education” also something special for us at the community college?

Indeed, I ask: Are we educationists not “manufacturing” and “producing” something different? Is it not the case that we are the access points for the poor, the typically under-served, those who may for one reason or another have never thought of themselves as “college material” but who have found that, as The Economist notes elsewhere, we educate or train in one manner or another about one-third of our nation's adults? Is it not the case that programs are expanding such as one in Chicago that have aimed to hone learning so that it will match job attainment, alongside flexible “community education” curricula that heighten awareness of current events, culture, and the like?

Yes, there is something “odd” about the “market” that is the community college, Ms. Duncan, and it is our students, our faculty and our multi-facetedness. Not only are we more “diverse” in the common modern definition thereof — California, Texas, Hawaii, and even Wyoming each have more than 50 percent non-white community college student populations, while these states’ other institutions of higher education are less ethnically mixed (http://www.communitycollegereview.com/blog/community-college-review-diversity-report-which-campuses-are-most-diverse), we are also more degree-flexible, offering certification in automobile repair and hotel management, computer science, real estate, and accountancy, to name a few. Open-entry, open-exit courses abound, and a just-in-time mentality flourishes that cannot be bred in our four-year brethren requiring years of syllabus and program preview preceding practice.

And so, when our “success” is examined, analyzed, scrutinized more than is the institutional progress of our big brother research and publication four-year fellows, I wonder why it is almost always with a jaundiced, if not skeptical, eye.  I wonder why we community colleges continue to have to justify ourselves, our importance, our “value,” and why we are asked over and over again to “measure success.”

Let's think about that, and comment.

And in the meantime, let’s remember such immeasurable successes as I see among my own students: A once-thought-lost prison lifer given a last-ditch last chance who learns enough French grammar and language that he is offered foreign service training and is within the next 16 months sent abroad to work for our government overseas; a timid religious conservative not permitted to attend classes in the all-too-open world of the public college but who can be guided at home online within her family and who attains world wisdom via the francophone version of the truly World Wide Web and becomes an ambassador for broader education within her faith; a Vietnamese immigrant illiterate in all languages who finds succour among his compatriots in southern California, encouragement to learn, and ultimately a job with Cisco; a homebound 90+-year-old seeking to recall and re-visit a period of her life spent in France as the Second World War was dawning and France was fearing dusk.

These are successes. They are not calculated by points on tests or by graduation rates. 

They are not determinable by some automated Learning Management System or measured through “objectives” or “rubrics.” They are the human nature of our institutions, and we must remind those who would apply ordinary “market” analyses to our colleges that the community college in all its oddity is something that we should not only treasure but nurture. 

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