Monday, February 23, 2015

Open enrollment and the urban college

Last week's reading for my graduate class was a selection from James Traub's 1994 book City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College. Traub's discussion of "the underclass" had been roundly criticized by Mary Soliday's 2002 The Politics of Remediation, which we read the week before. Soliday argues that the idea of "underclass," which she presents as a designation that indicates cultural barriers, is often substituted for "working class" to suggest that somehow the urban experience is responsible for lack of achievement. In Soliday's view, the underclass is a compelling image for "neoliberal intellectuals" because it allows failures in remediation to be cast as resistance to assimilation and highlight student need rather than the institutional structures that might need to be addressed. By giving agency to students in their own failures in City College, Traub implies that "college is affordable for everyone, but not attainable for cultural reasons" (Soliday 131).

So, I went into Traub expecting to see an indictment of open admissions, and I did see that. But, what I didn't expect was the ways that Traub echoed current educational debates 20 years later and relied on almost caricatured narratives of underprepared high school graduates and the frustrated, unprepared academics unfortunate enough to teach them.  Honestly, there were parts of the book describing Charles Frye's remedial class that could have been swiped from Welcome Back, Kotter, and strained belief.

On the other hand, Traub does get at the complexity of higher education, a complexity that troubles me.
City College lives at the intersection of these two principles. It cannot fully satisfy both. The only way to ensure that it flourishes as a fine professional and liberal arts institution, as it once did, is to recognize the limits of its social mission. City, and any other college that aspires to high academic standards, cannot be asked to educate large numbers of deeply disadvantaged students, as Ann Reynolds understands. It's not unreasonable to ask that students who complete high school without the academic credits detailed in the College Preparatory Initiative complete them elsewhere, presumably in a community college. Programs like SEEK, which permit students to enter without having satisfied admissions criteria, should stop functioning as entitlements and accept only those students who show special promise. And City cannot allow its commitment ot remedy disadvantage to lead to the sort of "social promotion" that has such a demoralizing impact on the high schools. City must accept students who have a decent chance of succeeding, ply them with help, and then insist that they satisfy not only high expectations by high standards (Traub 204-205).
As a former high school teacher and a new professor in a community college system, I've taught to see the students who are "without the academic credentials" they need to complete college. Four-year institutions raise admissions standards and reduce remediation. Those students who lack the academic credentials now, as in 1994, come to community colleges, and I think that's a perfectly logical and reasonable situation. But increasingly, those community colleges, too ,feel the same pressures that Traub describes here: educate all who come, but on a time-limit. Prepare them for college and careers, regardless of where they are when they start, within a certain timeframe. That's not entirely realistic.

Traub's recommendation to "ply them with help" seems to be the key. Northern Virginia Community College has 4 pathways programs designed to do just that for different populations within the college. In my limited experience here, the Pathways programs do seem to help students navigate the system. But they are likely not cheap to implement. If we're really determined to educate all, then these programs need to be the norm and not the exception. They need to carry students who need additional support into the community college system and beyond.

Do we have the societal commitment to do that?

1 comment:

  1. No. We don't. And we never have. When America runs dry on natural resources then we might start to see human capital as worthy of development. Meanwhile lip service is all we intend to pay