Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
Life on campus this fall will be very different from last year, when a forthcoming election enlivened debate from the dining hall to the lecture hall. But in an off year for national politics, how can you build your students' interest in critical public issues?
Engaging students on public issues is not an easy task, and no wonder. It's hard for most to connect with theoretical policy, especially when they see their political system as inept, broken, or otherwise unworthy of trust. For students enmeshed in social lives, academics, a job and, often, family responsibilities, talking about policy can seem even more hopeless. While many students may simply consider such matters as wholly theoretical abstractions far removed from the reality of their daily lives, we know they are not. Policy has the ability to change the answer to questions like: Will I have a job in my field when I graduate? Has technology forever changed the landscape of employment? What does the Affordable Care Act mean for me when I turn 26?
We've found that there are ways to make policy decisions come alive for students (as well as other members of the public). Together with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda developed the Choicework approach. Rooted in the theories of our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, Choicework can be truly transformative for a few reasons. In the same way that storytelling can bring a news article, research or cause to life, Choicework roots policy approaches in finite and human choices, using accessible language and grounding the choices in essential values that people really connect with.
Choicework can make policy come to life. The point is not to choose one and only one approach; rather, by emphasizing the inherent choices and stakes in the issue at hand brings policy to life, Choicework helps students connect to it and envision how policy plays out in their own lives and the lives of others, and visualize other approaches and broaden the discussion.
Here's an example of Choicework, from our Citizens' Solutions Guide on Immigration:
In addition to Immigration, Public Agenda has published Citizen Solutions Guides on Jobs & The Economy, Healthcare, Education, The Federal Budget, and Energy. All of our CSG’s include introductory overviews of the topic, key facts, links to online supporting documentation, and illustrative charts and graphs.
Interested in experimenting with this approach in your classroom? Our nonpartisan Citizens' Solutions Guides on some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues make great discussion starters in the lecture hall and are free to download. We’d love to hear your stories putting Choicework to use. Let us know how it works out!
Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
The majority of transfer students from community college (62 percent) will go on to receive a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students who have already received a two-year credential before transferring have an even better shot, with 72 percent going on to complete a bachelor's in 6 years. This data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a report released last week.
While there is certainly room for improvement, this is hopeful news. For many young Americans, community college represents one of the few remaining pathways to the American Dream, and these colleges serve nearly half of the nation's undergraduate population.
The students tracked for the study had transferred without taking time off, meaning they likely had more momentum than the typical student, according to researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Momentum – helping students maintain it and supporting them when it flags—is a critical component of student success. After all, while students in this study had decent success rates, for more than half of the country's community college students, in 6 years, they will not have completed a two-year degree or transferred to a four-year college.
Many students face hurdles in their personal lives that make completion difficult: they work full-time, they're caring for a family, they commute, they attend school part-time. But the ways in which some community colleges operate present many unnecessary barriers that prevent students from reaching their goals.
Most of us tend to think about the path through community college as something like this:
But here's what the community college experience is really like for most students:
Graphics courtesy of Greg Stoup, Rob Johnstone, and Priyadarshini Chaplot of The RP Group.
The complexity of a student’s pathway through an associate’s degree or transfer sheds light on why so few community college students make it to the end of their programs. Yet this flaw in the system is structurally fixable. There are policies and practices that straighten the completion maze and improve and support student momentum.
We've been working with leading, innovative community colleges to identify and implement practices that help students better find their way. We've also spoken to community college students from across the country to hear what they say would help them more easily navigate enrollment, completion and transfer. The ideas they raise include:
- Programs with well-defined pathways and clear goals.
- Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals.
- More inter-departmental collaboration and better channels of communication on campus, so students can better find the information and services they need.
- Exposure to career possibilities.
- Developmental education offered in a way that helps students succeed.
Another thing we heard frequently from students was, "I should have known." The students we have spoken to are quick to blame themselves for not being able to reach the end of the completion maze. Unfortunately, their experiences reinforce the misperception many hear their whole life: that they're not college ready; that college isn't for them.
We owe it to students to fix the flaws in our higher education system. The stories, concerns, and recommendations raised by current and former students serve as useful and powerful points of departure as we explore how to help more students complete a degree.
Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Danielle Stouck
With a final vote of 68 to 32, a bipartisan group of Senators passed a groundbreaking immigration reform bill late last month. The bill aims to clear the way for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to embark on a pathway to citizenship while enforcing tougher border security measures.
The future of the Bill in the House remains to be seen. However, in the Senate, the American people witnessed a rare political moment defined not by familiar stalemates and bickering but by solutions-oriented compromise.
How did immigration reform, a divisive and highly controversial topic, become an example of bipartisanship and collaborative decision-making in the Senate? And can we build on this forward momentum so that Congress can continue moving from arguments to dialogue and solutions that work for the American people?
The country has not seen comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade, even as the American public has called out for it. The legislature has taken up comprehensive immigration reform bills in the past. However, these have never made it to see a president’s signature, often due to partisan bickering.
Then, in January, the “Gang of Eight”—four Democratic and four Republican Senators including Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet and Flake—offered a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform.
The blueprint begins, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken.” This opening statement does not focus on past legislation or place any blame on any particular branch of government or specific legislative bloc. Rather, it illustrates a commitment to progress. The blueprint goes on to list four basic legislative pillars agreed upon by the bipartisan group, which became the building blocks for the bill.
Bipartisan groups, such as the so-called Super Committee, have tried and failed to effectively address divisive issues such as the debt crisis and the fiscal cliff. What was different about the Gang of Eight?
The eight Senators agreed to focus on four major issues of contention from the beginning, despite an overwhelming 300 proposed amendments (fully 200 of which were actually debated). While we can only speculate on the intentions of the Gang, this narrow focus seems to signal that the Senators understood that practical solutions require restraint and compromise.
Furthermore, each side conceded to the other on at least one main point. The "pathway to citizenship" supported by the Democrats is contingent on an increase in border security and a crackdown on visa overstay, sticking points for Republicans.
In the words of Senator Schumer, “The other seven members of the Gang of Eight, we have come to become friends. We have argued with each other, we have bonded with each other, but most of all we are united in this effort to make our nation better by fixing our broken immigration system.”
Now the immigration reform bill must pass through a skeptical House of Representatives. While many remain pessimistic on this front, we hope this bill can not only help mend our country’s “broken” system but also come to represent civility, bipartisanship and functional governance on Capitol Hill.
Read more about immigration, its affect on jobs and the economy, authorized vs. unauthorized immigration, potential approaches to reform and other complexities in our Citizens' Solutions Guide on the issue. How would you reform our country's immigration system? Let us know on Twitter, or comment below!
Monday, July 1st, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan
Though tech innovations can be helpful in improving communication and engagement, especially when immediacy is necessary, some make the mistake of relying too heavily on technology as a stand in for other communication practices.
Keypads, or “clickers” as they are called in higher education, are certainly no exception to that rule. Using these types of audience response systems alone won’t support better interactions between people, but they do have the potential to immensely improve engagement practices when used appropriately.
"Click to Engage: Using Keypads to Enhance Deliberation," a new paper from Public Agenda's Center for Advances in Public Engagement, supports the work of public engagers seeking to improve their use of keypads in group discussion and engagement.
Here are some ways clickers can complement small group discussion:
- Keypads can reveal who is and who isn’t in the room.
Using keypads to field demographic questions enables discussion participants to understand who is in the room and situate themselves with the group. It also provides an easy way for the discussion facilitators and organizers to look back at the data. Using keypad responses for recording demographics can motivate those hosting the group discussion to improve their recruitment of persons from diverse backgrounds as well.
- Keypads can be conversation starters.
Keypads can be a great way to break the ice among discussion participants. Asking a couple of neutral, even comedic, questions can set a comfortable tone and allow for some low-pressure conversation to begin. Incorporating this sort of ice breaker in the beginning typically generates more inclusive and robust dialogue. Another bonus: such questions help discussion participants get used to the device.
- Keypads can show variance in opinion and illuminate minority views.
With divisive issues, each side may assume it has the strong majority and the opposition is merely an uninformed but vocal minority. Keypads have the power to provide a more accurate count of the splits and give voice to minority views that might not otherwise enter the conversation. This is not fool-proof though, and can have an adverse effect if audience members do not come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Organizers should take care in designing the discussion so that those with minority views do not end up feeling alienated. If a room predominately holds one perspective and only a few disagree, allowing those dissenters to have the floor, if they’re willing, can be a powerful means for exploring divergent viewpoints in a reasonable way.
- Keypads can assist facilitators in allocating remaining time.
Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement through quick polling using the clickers can help a facilitator better allocate precious remaining time. If a topic reveals sharp disagreement, perhaps that topic warrants further, and deeper, discussion. Alternately, participants may not be ready to take on an issue if not enough time remains and the best option is to table it for more research.
The benefits of using a tool like the keypad to engage a diverse room of people far outweigh the drawbacks. Its immediacy and ease of use make it a powerful aide in deeper engagement. But thoughtful preparation, care and attention to design are crucial to using keypads successfully.
For more pointers on how to use this tool, including a breakdown of best practices and strengths and limitations, download our new paper here. For other tips on engagement practices, visit our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. We’d love to hear your successes, words of caution, and other tips regarding the use of keypads send us an email to Michelle Currie at email@example.com.
Thursday, June 27th, 2013 | Will Friedman, Ph.D. and David Schleifer, Ph.D.
Nurse-practitioners can provide many medical services, especially in primary care and women’s health, and could therefore help fill the doctor shortage gap. Moreover, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act move forward, nurses will be increasingly called upon to improve care coordination, help reduce medical errors and avoidable rehospitalizations, and improve transitions and handoffs.
However, some research suggests that an existing nurse shortage will grow more acute, both because nursing education programs do not have sufficient capacity and because many nurses are reaching retirement. And relying on nurses to deliver care for less money assumes that nurses should be paid less than doctors.
Furthermore, in the 2010 National Survey of Registered Nurses, only one in ten nurses reported having an excellent relationship with a physician (link opens PDF). In fact, since the survey began in 2002, that figure has never been higher than 11%.
During recent deliberative focus groups with members of the public around the country, we heard many participants talk about their experiences with a lack of coordination among doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Such experiences, they felt, had put their health or their families’ health at risk and cost them money. The groups strongly supported helping medical professionals coordinate care.
The task therefore becomes not only to increase the number of doctors and nurses, but also to empower nurses to work effectively and collaboratively alongside other medical professionals. Such an approach can not only help address the need for more medical professionals but also seems relatively acceptable to members of the public.
Want to learn more about public views toward measures to make health care more cost-effective? Keep an eye on this space, or contact Megan at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will email you the findings of our research when they are available.
Friday, June 21st, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi
"Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."
Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.
This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.
Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.
"They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."
Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.
These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.
Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.
"[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."
“Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement
In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.
Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.
"[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."
Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.
Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.”
Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.
Monday, May 20th, 2013 | Public Agenda
Want to print this infographic? Click here.
While it's no secret that Americans tend to hold federal policymakers in disregard, they are much more likely to trust their local city or county officials. Local officials are close to home, and local government is often only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.
Local officials recognize this connection between their constituents’ trust and government’s proximity to the people. New research in California by Public Agenda suggests that, in communities across America’s most populous state, local officials are interested in engaging citizens in more thoughtful, robust and inclusive ways.
The research includes a survey, interviews and focus groups with local, elected and nonelected public officials throughout California, as well as with leaders of community-based and civic organizations. What these leaders and officials have to say offers important considerations for public engagement in communities around the country.
Nearly 8 in ten California public officials say they're interested in learning about public engagement practices that have worked elsewhere, and 85 percent report that their views toward public engagement have changed since their careers began. Many say they have come to understand and value public engagement more over time.
Yet both local officials and civic leaders see hurdles to improving their efforts to engage residents in public decisions. Sometimes officials and civic leaders-- potential partners in engagement-- disagree about the root of the problems they face.
Regardless, local officials and civic leaders share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers, and desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration. The research suggests some avenues for improvement.
Thursday, May 9th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan
Young America’s current view of government does not bode well for the future of our democracy. According to a new Harvard poll of 18-29 year-olds, these so-called millennials are becoming more polarized, more distrustful and more cynical about politics than in previous years.
The difference between the way young Democrats and Republicans view the President has never been more dramatic than in the last six months, the poll release said. The President’s approval rating among young Democrats is 85 percent, versus 11 percent among young Republicans. This divide has been growing in recent years, with the gap widening by 11 percentage points since last year.
Millennials also consistently rated the country’s institutions poorly. Only 22 percent would trust the federal government (as a whole) to do the right thing, and just 18 percent would trust Congress. The president and Supreme Court garnered a bit more trust (39 percent and 40 percent, respectively), with the military rated most trustworthy (54 percent said they would trust them to do the right thing).
Cynicism for the political process as a whole has increased at a rapid pace. The poll found that nearly half of millennials (48 percent) don’t believe their votes will make a real difference, up from 29 percent just a year ago.
While this study does raise myriad reasons for concern and action, the picture is more complicated and less gloomy than it suggests. Millenials have high rates of volunteerism and political activism, and they are arguably masters at networking and collaboration. Some say that this combination may actually break down the partisan divide.
Still, Harvard's survey does merit a genuine discussion of ways we can keep division, distrust and cynicism from taking hold.
So how could we counteract it? Perhaps by first examining the causes we can identify some solutions and find a more favorable prognosis.
Possible Causes for Division and Discontent Among Millennials
One potential source for growing cynicism among the young may be the lack of progress when it comes to our lagging economy. The consequences of our current weak economy have been felt acutely by the young, who also face the ballooning cost of higher education, often staggering student loan debt, the reality that a degree or credential is increasingly required for employment in any field, and the ill fortune of belonging to a generation that will not be better off than their parents. While college graduates seem to have weathered the recession well, they are often underemployed or working jobs below their skill level. For young people without a college degree, the unemployment rate is much higher.
Meanwhile, these underemployed and unemployed youth watch as policymakers avoid making the important decisions necessary to setting this country on a viable economic path. No wonder this group is so frustrated by the current political system.
In general, this generation hasn’t seen progress on most major reform movements in their lifetime. People’s political attitudes often coalesce at the beginning of their adulthood, when they enter the political process, said Trey Grayson, Harvard’s director of the Institute of Politics, which means that millennials could already be conditioned to doubt and distrust.
Shortfalls in the civic education that young people received (or failed to receive) in secondary school may be a contributing factor as well. Civic education can foster pride in the democratic process, encourage active citizenship and build a constituency of inspired leaders for tomorrow. However, signs indicate that students' civic mastery is faltering, and, nationally, our education system's emphasis on civic education has dwindled.
Outside of formal schooling, young people have few opportunities to develop civic skills. In fact, we can likely attribute millennial polarization in part to the political isolation they experience socially. Only 12 percent of millennials surveyed said that their most recent significant other had different political beliefs from their own, and 72 percent reported that all or most of their friends share their politics, according to the Harvard Crimson. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, sure, but homogenization of social groups doesn’t typically encourage the types of critical discussions that have to happen in order to come to terms with tough issues.
It may be the case that the Internet and other digital tools can help improve civic engagement and encourage political activities that bring people of differing politics together. As of yet, however, such technology has failed to broaden the reach of engagement beyond those who are already civically active. Furthermore, research indicates that online commenting tends to negatively affect civil discourse and reduce objectivity.
Improving the Outlook for Millennials and our Political Future
Whatever the myriad for the younger generation’s increasingly polarized, distrustful and cynical attitudes toward public life, there are no clear and simple solutions. Here are some principles previously discussed in our work that we believe are likely to help:
- Advocate for problem solving over gridlock among our nation's leaders
- Explore ways to harness technology to improve civic education and increase across-the-aisle engagement
- Pursue practices for (re)building trust
We've also seen many instances where community leaders help citizens engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue with people diverse views. Such conversations often have a marked effect on participants, who come away understanding why others have views counter to their own, accepting that there are no easy answers, and seeing their political opponents as people instead of caricatures. Can such a model be used in the higher education classroom to instill a respect for civil dialogue in our nation's college students?
These ideas are certainly not exhaustive. Do you have any others?
Concentrating on ways to shift the political perspective of our future leaders will be a continuous process. Yet not doing so may let them succumb to deep, lifelong polarization and will be detrimental to the health of our society. Let’s get a jump on them while they're young.
Friday, April 19th, 2013 | Jeremiah Hess
Those of us who operate in the K-12 education arena talk a lot about how important parents are to a child's education and to making schools better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked last year: "Promoting a community culture, where educational improvement is everyone's responsibility, is our great national mission." And parents can play a key role in promoting and sustaining that culture. But what will it take to tap into parents' full potential as partners in education improvement?
From our past research it seems clear enough that parents want schools to serve their children well and don’t believe those schools can do it alone. Our new survey of parents in Kansas City, summarized in the report “Ready, Willing, and Able,” adds a wrinkle: parents differ (often dramatically) in how they seek to be involved, and school leaders who are serious about making parents partners should be prepared to meet them where they are.
In this new research, we identified three groups of parents, each unique in preference and readiness to get involved:
Potential transformers stand out as the group most likely to brave the bureaucracy of school policymaking.
These parents tell us they are perfectly comfortable to act as advocates for broader school reform. They are ready to contact district officials and the media to discuss local school problems and to represent parents on committees that shape school policies. In our current study, 3 in 10 parents fell in this group.
Still, very few have actually been involved in these ways. Providing real opportunities for them to get more involved—and supporting their efforts to organize themselves—is an important step towards unearthing parents’ power in school improvement.
We think they’d get the support of other parents, too: even though the majority of parents don't feel comfortable getting involved as transformers, two-thirds in our survey believed that parent advocates have the ability to make a difference.
Reaching parents can’t stop there, though.
School helpers are a second group of parents with more to give.
When you need support in more traditional parent roles in a school—help for teachers in the classroom, volunteers for an event, or more support for a PTA—these are the parents to find. Though school helpers leave advocacy and school policy matters to others, all of these parents feel they could be doing more for their school– an obvious call, we think, for leaders to track these parents down.
Even reaching the school helpers doesn’t exhaust a principals’ and teachers’ options.
Help seekers deserve some special attention.
These parents are concerned about their own child’s learning and seem particularly hungry for more support from schools in helping their child do well. They aren’t likely to respond to calls for collective action, and probably won’t have the time or inclination to volunteer more at their school. Yet every single one of these parents told us there was still “work to be done” teaching their child to do their best in school, and teachers and school leaders are likely to make progress with them by supporting those efforts at home.
Utilizing parents as a powerful resource
In total, these three groups (a full 78 percent of parents surveyed) are a valuable yet untapped resource for diverse, powerful and effective parent engagement. To draw on these parents more effectively, leaders must understand that different parents will respond to a different set of appeals. Our report provides some specific strategies for each of the groups the research identified.
Yet, some principles for parent engagement are universal. For example, education leaders should begin engaging parents by listening to them and understanding their needs. Clearly communicating what exactly a school, a district or a particular teacher needs from parents to succeed is also important. As one Kansas City father told us:
"Parents don’t understand that their presence makes a difference. Schools aren’t getting that message out. Even when my school was going through its worst times, they didn’t get the message out that they needed help from the community."
There’s hope, though: parents are by no means hostile to their schools. In fact, parents across the country have told us—for this and other studies in the past—that they don’t think of their child’s school as just a service provider; they value its place in their community, trust their teachers and respect principals who return phone calls. In the Kansas City region, 77 percent of parents felt that their principals and teachers were well-connected to their communities, and just over half said they wouldn’t leave their school “even if money was not an issue”).
In spite of their concerns and complaints, parents want their schools to succeed and are aware that they need to be part of that success. For school leaders, developing relationships at this level is always possible, and it’s an ideal first step towards creating Secretary Duncan’s “community culture.”
But we think that transformers, school helpers, and help seekers can be found in any school, and we hope that the pressures of constant change haven’t made education leaders forget about simply making parents feel welcome. As one mother reminded us:
“I love it when teachers thank me for coming. I love it when the principal says, ‘Glad to see you. Hope to see you again.'”
Leaders should only remember that with parents, just as with students, one size doesn't fit all.
Monday, March 25th, 2013 | Alison Kadlec, Ph.D.
A recent piece by Jon Marcus from the Hechinger Report, "Stopping the Clock: Colleges Under Fire Over Transfer Credits That Don't Count," does a great job of drawing attention to a serious problem facing higher education today, especially in the consideration it pays to the insights I have heard from college students during focus groups on the issue. However, my colleagues at Public Agenda and I are troubled by one of the premises of the piece.
While faculty "hubris" and "snobbery" may account for some portion of the problem students face as they seek to transfer credits, it would be a mistake to dismiss faculty concerns in the absence of systematic efforts to improve skillful and thoughtful assessment of learning outcomes.
In nearly every focus group I've conducted with transfer students, some portion of the participants (usually 10-30 percent) tell stories of courses at open-enrollment institutions that should not have been allowed to transfer because they were of such low quality. These students talk about feeling like they're being set up for failure, and one even said to me, "I'm glad that class didn't transfer because I would have definitely failed the next level."
If even 10 percent of community college courses are watered down to the point that transfer students are set up for failure when they seek to continue their education at a more selective (and typically more expensive) institution, then we need to begin having in earnest the conversations about the real tensions between a mission focused on access and one focused on success.
Faculty Face a Multitude of Challenges
Through dozens and dozens of conversations with faculty at community colleges in several states, I've heard their daily struggle to find a way to help catastrophically underprepared students advance to the next level. A majority of these faculty members are adjuncts without a voice in, strong support from or deep ties to their institution.
I've also heard faculty at non-selective four-year institutions describe the "daily compromise" they make as they attempt to balance meeting students where they are while setting expectations to help them get to where they need to be. One memorable faculty member at one of the nation's largest community college systems echoed many others in saying, "I used to teach calculus, but now spend most of my time trying to figure out the best way to teach how to add whole numbers."
The challenges faculty face on the issue of academic transfer go beyond the pressures that come with underprepared students. Transferability of credits across institutions will ultimately depend on the ability of faculty to do something they've never been trained or supported to do before: determine how to effectively assess learning outcomes and then actually do it.
In a focus group last week at a non-selective four-year institution in Ohio, one faculty member brought this challenge into focus when she asked her colleagues at the table, "Do you think part of the problem is our training? I went to a very good Ph.D. program, and I never once heard the word assessment or learning outcomes." For all the training and knowledge that college faculty accrue and possess, they are never formally taught how to be teachers or how to reliably assess what their students should know and be able to do.
It's Time to Change the Conversation
Community colleges and non-selective four-year institutions have hard conversations ahead of them about the relationship between access and success. If simply making it possible for students to enroll is not enough - if institutions have a responsibility to pay attention to who succeeds, who fails and how we know - then it's time for new kinds of conversations that move beyond finger pointing at any one group.
The tendency of experts to caricature faculty as shameless egotists obscures the more serious issues at work, and it ignores the fact that any meaningful and lasting success in higher education reform will require the knowledge, expertise and commitment of faculty.
It's too easy, and even a little lazy, to blame faculty egotism for such a complex and systemic problem, and doing so won't help bring faculty to the table. It's time for the conversation to change so that we can all get down to the real work ahead of us.