A Curricular Conundrum

The co-requisite curricular model in community colleges has been gaining greater momentum thanks to positive reports out of recent pilot projects in flagship states such as Texas and California. The success reinforces the insolvency of traditional remediation, with several college systems nationwide having previously reformed their developmental education prior to the report, whose ink has had barely enough time to set before the document’s most ardent supporters have demanded its passage into policy.

But despite some genuinely significant improvements in remedial students’ learning, such sweeping reform ought to wait. (The exclusion of state funding for this curricular model represents additional difficulty.)

Data from existing studies center predominantly on students’ success in mathematics, leaving conspicuously absent sufficient analysis of writing and reading outcomes in a co-requisite curriculum. (Descriptions of how writing and reading instruction make for a natural pairing do not qualify.) Data beyond this should be approached cautiously. Accomplishing functional literacy after a lifetime of poor nurturing and inadequate instruction has routinely proven difficult. And there lacks a convincing rationale as to how reading and writing curricula fit soundly into this model.

Currently, neither can.

If remediation were a simple matter of review, courses could be fast-tracked to be completed within weeks (presently available), offer customized instruction based on student performance (also presently available), and provide instant feedback to provide maximum efficiency (also presently available). Remedial education would cease being an onerous issue, assuming students enrolled in all studies accurately represent those common to college remediation.

But they do not. Most remedial students exhibit deficiencies far more pronounced than those enrolled in study programs; actual classrooms represent not a tight range of borderline cases but an array of misplaced intellectuals and borderline illiterates that often share a similar disdain for their required enrollment.

Enrollments, however, appear to be receding and attrition rates improving, particularly for those in pathways-based curricula, but the number of incoming college students needing remediation, including those only months removed from high school graduation, remain high. And many cannot avoid succumbing to the dreadfully low rates of degree advancement for those requiring remediation, despite promising additional reforms.

Artificial intelligence, such as that found in interactive software found in remedial curricula, provides promise but often students in remediation have historically lacked the access to, familiarity with, and discipline to navigate such resources. Many students demand human interaction. A co-requisite education, if suitably outfitted with a truly interdisciplinary curriculum, might provide this.

But, currently, it does not and cannot.

The Cost Disease of College

Baumol’s cost-disease captures the economic certainty of productivity costs that innovation cannot modify, reduce, or outright eliminate will rise over time. Human labor proves the most incurable. As it is always necessary, it is eternally inflationary. Its indispensability makes it resistant to algorithms and silicon. Human labor, once the hallmark of economic progress and individual prosperity, has turned into a toxic expenditure for industries requiring more of it.

American higher education currently operates as an unsustainable expanse human labor stationed in 2- to 4-year academies, many of which exhibit congenital defects including inequitable enrollment practices, insufficient advisers and counselors, inadequate financial aid support, or curricular irrelevancy. All have garnered more national exposure, yet their endemic cost-disease and the cumulative effects warrant greater coverage.

Most attention over the past decade has gravitated toward affordability issues for students, and understandably so, but rarely considered are the productivity costs incurred by the institutions being blamed for those issues. This neither exonerates nor diminishes institutional liability. Nor does this perspective at all dilute the take that cost-disease has been overestimated when explaining excessive tuition rates. Its impact on the two-year college, however, does prove concerning.

Two-year colleges often accommodate deficits of their underserved populations beyond the academic: some sites have opted to provide daycare services to accommodate parents, other locations make food pantries available for malnourished students, while other campuses offer onsite health care services for uninsured students, including a rise in mental health services. And these populations—the parents, the low-income, the first-generation, the racially diverse, the non-English speaking, the functionally illiterate, the undecided, the uninterested, the all the above—will comprise a larger share of declining enrollments and demand more assistance programs, greater comprehensive counseling, and more expansive academic supports, all human-driven. Students who have had sparse access to learning technologies and few opportunities to practice self-sufficiency, pushing many to become more fully dependent on human-based services. This shift will subsequently require from educators a more expansive, perhaps more explicit, hidden curriculum—in loco parentis—for students whose upbringing had survived without one, but whose immediate future demands it.

These trends and roles make teaching and learning—that which we call education—a supremely human act, a dynamic that artificial intelligence can neither replicate nor replace. Although software can cultivate students’ online navigation and recall abilities, a digital environment cannot outclass what flesh and blood has long refined. Genuine interaction will remain human:  nuanced, contradictory, and temperamental—qualities that software can at best mimic.

But this human triumph pays an unavoidable cost:  provided appropriately to scale as it ought to be, higher education’s operating costs would prove prohibitive, requiring an impossibly expansive labor-force that would never be able to meet demand. Capacity drops. Quality declines. Downtrends continue. Rinse. Repeat.

Even if artificial intelligence prevails in higher education within another generation, a sustainable market for it might not. State funding will never rebound; unsustainable health care and pension costs will make sure of that. Referendums will eventually run dry of support from a disillusioned public, whose purchasing loyalties have begun prioritizing relevancy over an obscure allegiance to a brand name. Productivity costs will continue their rise, thus limiting the scale of commodification required to meet demand. Online learning serves as a reliable proxy, as its revolutionary role after 30 years has settled more naturally into a learning platform, storage unit, and conduit for faster, more novel communication. Online education’s expedition not only to improve human learning but also to replace human educators likely capsized during the high-seas reign of fraudulent for-profits.

Artificial intelligence has not failed on account of too few attempts, a lack of ingenuity, or diminished capability. Online delivery has become a curricular staple, required of many faculty programs, but it was no more a threat yesterday as current AI software will be tomorrow. The tried and true Socratic method persists, as it always should.

The most pertinent question is at what continuing costs?

Missed Accountability

Community college is a ship dead in the water.

Fortunately, California has legislated a solution to its two-year colleges’ collective failure at graduating their students satisfactorily, meaning in less time and in greater numbers:  Any college failing to improve its student outcomes and its services to what UC Berkeley Graduate Professor David Kirp considers, “poor students,”[1] will incur a 40 percent deduction in state funding as a penalty.

It is an astonishingly asinine piece of legislation, but one that faithfully accords to a lineage of similar fiats threatening economic ruin to schools failing to achieve well-intended—but predictably misapplied—academic standards. No Child Left Behind reduced learning to the selecting of a response from a litany of established choices, under prompts written with as much acquaintance to critical thinking as its  legislation’s authors and supporters were to effective pedagogy. These proponents, including those  authors, then-President George W. Bush and the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA), conflated quick assessment with effective learning. And then they enacted it into legislation, codifying it for nearly a decade, during which NCLB’s nearsightedness became clear, exposing evermore the federal government’s ineptitude addressing an institution it has no constitutional business interfering with, let alone governing, in the first place.

But now the community college is under a microscope after having enjoyed years of much-ado national attention, previously languishing since time immemorial in the ivory shadows of four-year institutions. Many junior college’s faculty and staff enjoy a loose belief that their particular academic bubble is recession-proof. The 12-month span between 2007 – 2008 surely validated it when two-year colleges suddenly were thrust into the role of savior for the U.S. economy. Thanks to then-President Obama’s tenure, education’s forgotten middle child finally could extol its open-admissions policies and its pragmatism. Two-year institutions sported their signature low costs, inviting atmosphere, and personal accessibility.

The public cheered.

Above all else, an in-demand degree took half the time to earn.

The public flocked. Enrollments flourished. It helps tremendously that community colleges are recession-proof. Allegedly, anyway.

But such virtues have failed in practice in California. Allegedly, anyhow.

Back to David Kirp. He responds to this punitive legislation nobly by outlining three undertakings each publicly-funded community college must accomplish, lest a considerable chunk of taxpayer-provided dollars vanishes to the ether, along with the education of a significant diaspora of predominantly in-state students:  creating momentum, fixing remedial education, and providing [students] a road map to graduation. Mr. Kirp is resigned to this punitive legislation, as everyone ought to be. But he is proactively responding to avoid its overreach, as everyone ought to be.

But more concerning than the prohibitive legislation is the conspicuous absence in Kirp’s commentary—and in other similar editorials—of student accountability, especially within the framework of the two primary goals pursuant to his state’s legislation:  improving student outcomes and services to the poor, both of which are the exclusive burdens of the college, ultimately settling largely on faculty who regularly serve as students’ first, and often most accessible, contact.

Make no mistake:  faculty commiserate frequently—and colorfully—about students needing to be held more consistently and proportionally accountable. Significantly so. Administration is firmly aware of this issue, but notwithstanding any consensus behind closed doors, its official policy is to further mire itself in the profitable-but-unsustainable business of remediating students’ college experience to a cut-rate extension of high school, operated by the mid-level managerial equivalent of a meddling mother. Many administrations embrace it because marketing what amounts to a welfare state spoils system translates to easy money. Add in a compromised curriculum for good measure, and—voila!—acquiring state funding is less problematic. But now a significant morale issue engulfs administration and faculty concerning the essence of the college. Conflicts metes out over the precarious balance between academic rigor and student retention that trumpets from either side of the same official mouthpiece. The latter of the two chiefly falls under administration’s purview while the former under faculty’s. What is commonly at odds goes beyond the discrepancy in the nuanced meanings of quantity and quality; it cuts to both camps’ philosophical differences, reducible to the reason for the permanent philosophical disconnect: the dearth of college-level teaching experience present among administrators and executives.[2]

It is difficult to imagine an educator-turned-administrator would green-light staff to interrupt in-session classes, pluck students currently unregistered for the following semester, and then literally walk them down to an academic advising office, where each student will sit and wait before observing representative register their classes for them. It is problematic to believe this reformed educator would contractually obligate faculty to cold-call potential students over dinner hour (of all times) to lure them to a campus that more of them will opt out of than express even tepid interest. (It does not help when caller ID devices list incoming college employee office calls as, “unlisted,” further invalidating this tone-deaf recruitment method.) And it be disingenuous of this new executive to pull on a faculty member’s heartstrings to coax her into overlooking a student’s poor academic standing, and then to permit some exception to that member’s course policy. There have occurred the same situations but involving outright direct insubordination of the teacher, ranging from obscenities to threats. But these are apparently the effects of poorly enacted student outcomes or half-baked attempts at helping poor students and stopping a half-step short of holding students’ hands throughout the majority of their first two years of adult independence is sound practice.

Indeed, what President of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Hank Dunn, testifies to the need for more student accountability rings true:  the college’s overemphasis on its own best practices to ensure student success does not empower students to change their behavior. Back to Dunn: “we came to the conclusion that indeed we were doing things ‘to’ a student and not fundamentally changing the students’ [sic] behavior.”[3] Squandered in this morass is any credibility among disingenuous faculty and pandering administrations in firmly and consistently holding students accountable for their choices in college.

Choice. Its positivity infuses policy rhetoric. Choice is student-centeredness. Choice means for students autonomy, control, and comfort—a trinity that every newly-minted 18-year-old demands. Choice is democratic. American, even. Choice is also marketable. Choice is savvy. But without equivocation, with that brand of choice should naturally come for each student absolute responsibility and accountability. A college’s function is to legislate these and adjudicate them within the same parameters as the choices it supplies students.

Accountability does exist in community colleges. All faculty, personnel, staff, and administration—the collective institution, from custodians to the president—is continuously accountable for student success. California’s legislature agrees. The general public agrees. Mr. Kirp agrees. I agree.

But that should not the point. It is a deflection—a shrewd, political sleight-of-hand that maintains the veneer of accountability while disguising its original intent. Such misdirection preserves the integrity of the college and surely cements votes for the state suits because these approaches imply that students need never fear repercussions proportionate (or at all) to the infraction, whether it is related to academics, athletics, or campus life. In my experiences, this implication converts to actuality once college is in session and students’ desire to play more than work goes unchecked.

Serious discourse on this issue lags compared to how California’s state legislature defines “accountability” that, like its equally ambiguous brethren “equality,” becomes a presumptuously misapplied, highly politicized term. Its intensity and significance ebbs and wanes with as much predictable inconsistency as the stock market. In most literature, accountability focuses predominantly on how colleges should be more culpable for student success, meaning mildly praised when it occurs or mercilessly condemned when it does not. What literature does spotlight student accountability often tins with either caricature-like sanctimony or unenlightened persuasion on students’ natural capability to self-motivate, prioritize, and assuredly conquer their futures with aplomb, when in actuality, few further truths can be had considering the vast majority, populated in large part by Kirp’s “poor students,” among others, typically fail to meet the entrance standards of four-year public institutions because they lacked proper accountability at crucial times in the not-so-distant past, and not because they are cognitively deficient, victims of discrimination, or bearers of bad luck.

“We must work with what we have.” This is a common refrain in a professional’s college tenure from all levels of administration toward a litany of perennial issues. In campus-wide welcome-back speeches, it is a preemptive reminder whose mild firmness hardens by mid-term’s separate division pep talks. Buried in the words lay that third-rail issue of student accountability, strewn thickly with ominous statistics on declining enrollments and state budget cuts, punctuated with renewed vigor on retaining students to combat increased tuition costs and declining job wages.

And what of academic rigor, of the college-level work naturally resulting from the menu of the many desirable, empowering choices marketed to attract and retain as many warm bodies as possible? It is there, I am sure, lurking in still waters, waiting for an act of Nature to steer it again toward relevance. But it might take an act of Congress to legislate it out of the headwinds of oblivion, replete with ruinous consequences for all.

[1] “California to community colleges:  graduate more students or lose your funding,” LA Times, 8/22/18, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kirp-california-community-college-graduation-rates-20180822-story.html

[2] Educational administrative theory, a business acumen, or non-educational leadership experience qualify for executive or administrative positions in a type of college that markets its exclusive focus on best-practices instruction to exploit the most potential from students.

[3] “POV: Time to hold students accountable for their own success,” Community College Week, 3/18/2018, http://ccweek.com/article-3348-pov:-time-to-hold-students-accountable-for-their-own-success.html