An Impossible (Says You) Proposal

We must stop expecting less of the millions of capable community college students who want the finest possible education, Wick Sloane argues.

March 8, 2019

Friends, colleagues, detractors -- especially detractors -- all 2,000-some gathering in Philadelphia for the 101st annual meeting of the American Council on Education, champion of the self-proclaimed greatest higher education system in the world.

Take the lead, now, at the ACE gathering, to bring a swift end to the community college completion crisis. Crisis? Well, catastrophe or train wreck or unfathomable humanitarian disaster in the wealthiest nation on earth, if you like. This year, I turn to the four-year colleges among you. Here’s all I ask four-year colleges to do. Don’t worry; others do the work. Require for transfer applicants from a community college:

  1. A grade of 3 or higher on the AP exam in English Language and Composition or in U.S. History.*
  2. A grade of 3 or higher on the AP exam in Statistics or in Computer Science.
  3. Demonstrating mastery of Excel pivot tables and VLookup in data sets of at least 100 fields. (This is so all arrive at four-year colleges with job skills already.)

*Happy to substitute with the AP U.S. Government and Politics, which I discovered a few weeks ago in an interview with College Board president David Coleman and Stefanie Sanford, College Board chief of global policy.

“But Wick, this time you have gone too far. What you propose would require a total overhaul of the U.S. K-12 public school systems.”

Why are you all looking at me? Why not have our generation be the first in higher ed to take on rather than evade what we all know needs to be done? Anyone think the majority of low-income, first-generation, first-year community college students would score 3 or higher here?

That’s it. Require two AP courses/exams for transfer admission from community colleges. Warts, sociological and cultural obstacles and all, AP is a fair proxy for our national agreement on what college freshmen should know about these subjects. Closer to home, well, at home, all of us here expect that most of our children will have these skills even as a 12th grader. Why are lower skills OK for millions of other people’s children?

Last year, my failed exhortation (click here for that column) to you all was to raise completion and to eliminate poverty by joining me in an application for the next $100 million from the MacArthur Foundation 100 & Change Competition. No volunteers. This is a “competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” I am still working on my proposal. Some help would be welcome. Being eclipsed by your better proposal would be best of all.

That the completion situation is a crisis? A disaster? There, I’ve named the situation. None of you now have to take the lead. Allowing millions of students to fail each year can no longer be higher ed leaders’ business as usual, another routine agenda item.

Here is the business-as-usual, no-particular-alarm scale of our failures.

Community college leaders believe that the federal measure -- earning a two-year degree in three calendar years -- is too harsh. That’s the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, IPEDS. Community colleges developed the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which allows six calendar years for a two-year degree. The American Association of Community College Fast Facts 2018 reports most recent completion results:

  • VFA 59 percent: All entering students; six years to complete; nine separate outcomes.
  • IPEDS 25 percent: First-time, full-time; three years to complete; only graduates.

Therefore, the failure rates from current community college resource allocation:

  • VFA: (1.0-0.59) x 7.2 million credit students = 2,952,000 students
  • IPEDS: (1.0-0.25) x 7.2 million credit students = 5,400,000 students

Community colleges have been stuck here for too long. My AP transfer requirements bring a fresh perspective to these stuck discussions. How can 2.9 million to 5.4 million failures be business as usual, a routine agenda item for us all?

My evidence of community colleges being stuck, or perhaps just worn down? Perhaps the IPEDS measure is too narrow for a total evaluation of community colleges. Where is the alarm at a 25 percent completion rate for the cohort IPEDS does measure? The Voluntary Framework of Accountability? How did we the people even begin a discussion where needing six years to complete a two-year degree is acceptable? I have looked. I have found no credible proposals to revise IPEDS.

To start your discussion, let me address what I hear already from my many able, eloquent and knowledgeable detractors.

“The AP is just one measure. It’s not fair or reasonable to expect these (low-income, first-generation) students to have a clue about what the AP is. Don’t you know the AP is coming under criticism?”

Make me a counteroffer of equal rigor. I’ll let you define rigor. International Baccalaureate is fine with me. The AP criticisms I have seen are from elite schools seeking to prove their teaching exceeds AP. Faculty with a community college course load do not have much time for such curriculum design. AP offers sound off-the-shelf examples of courses that beleaguered adjunct professors can use.

“The AP is not a silver bullet. You make it sound as though … whatever. One size does not fit all.”

Of course AP is not a silver bullet. Nothing is. I am trying to provoke a discussion that will bring progress in numbers greater than just tens of thousands. With millions of students in need, I think we can find some large-scale solutions. These are freshman courses. Are the millions of students taking AP exams 100 percent wrong? College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement exams, reported that in May 2017, 2.7 million students took 4.9 million AP exams. One size may not fit all -- just millions.

Yes, I know of the many completion efforts. Every effort counts. But efforts in thousands of students, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands? The crisis is millions.

“What you have shown me from AP has almost no cultural diversity. The AP exam does not reflect our population, and so it’s not appropriate.”

I have looked. If you have a counterproposal, great. Two AP courses, as I propose, would be six credits out of the 60 credits required for an associate degree. AP success brings a skill level transfer students will encounter at their four-year colleges. I want my students to transfer as equals.

“Your AP proposal has nothing to do with completion.”

Correct. I give up on completion. With my AP plan, I know students will transfer with solid competitive skills. A bachelor’s degree remains a strong credential. If students know that transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree requires these AP skills? Perhaps students will become informed consumers and demand these skills from community colleges. If community colleges fail to respond? Khan Academy is ready and free.

All we/higher ed know about completion is that most selected, funded students at residential selective colleges, where faculty course loads are often closer to five or six per year rather than per semester have the highest graduation rates. I would support community colleges that concede that setting graduation rates for all the variables for students may just not be possible.

“Millions? Do you have a clue about what this would take? Staffing? Staff development for professors and advisers? Time? Student preparation and support?”

Sure. More than a clue. What I propose is impossible. Not a typo: impossible. That’s impossible with the current traditional resource and asset deployment -- faculty, staff, buildings, classrooms, courses online, hybrid, traditional.

Impossible -- that’s my point. I think of an innovators’ parable: if you want to improve car mileage by five miles per gallon, work on the car. If you want 100 miles per gallon? You have to rethink transportation.

“And what makes you think your huge can happen?”

History. The Manhattan Project. Higher ed rose to that challenge. Harvard president James Conant was in the lead with Vannevar Bush an MIT vice president. The list goes on and on. The need then was for scientists. Higher ed today has talent in other necessary disciplines. Preventing millions of students, people, human beings, from being trapped in poverty in the 21st century can surely motivate us all.

Detractors: This is an analogy, not a prescription.

From the website, with photos of supporting documents. “Let’s just take a moment to marvel at this. They (the science professors and all) went from pretty much just talking about a bomb, in theory, on paper, in late 1942, and had a project with 125,310 active employees at its peak, 22 months later. That’s a huge ramp-up.”

Do we want these millions of students to have even a few courses equal to our own or what we expect for our children? You tell me. Is creating systems for millions to reach the AP level impossible?

Not even close.

Turning to Philadelphia: elsewhere on completion, I need a moment to thank Terry Hartle and Anne Hickey Meehan of ACE for their fantastic work resulting in the federal Government Accountability Office study on college student hunger, released in January. That changed the world. How many said a GAO study was impossible? Maybe this year a GAO study on college completion rates?

David Coleman, College Board president, you must be there. I emailed you. Twice. What do you think?

For my two friends on the ACE agenda, Cappy Hill, head of Ithaka S+R, and Larry Bacow, president of Harvard, you could both take the lead here. Higher ed has no greater champions for these students, my students, than the two of you. In your remarks, take a moment to move my idea along?

One more, from detractors and some baffled friends. “Wick, give it a rest. Why won’t you let go?”

To suppress my straitjacketing rage at all who tell me just about every day that these students, my students, cannot do this level of work and do not deserve the chance. You know who you are.


Wick Sloane is an end user of a most highly selective education. Follow him @WickSloane.


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