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Commentary By Robert Cherry

The Real Crisis in Higher Education

Economics, Education Higher Ed

Too many ill-prepared students are cajoled into enrolling in academic programs at community colleges. For a long time, this translated into very low completion rates, leaving a large share of students with some college but no degree. In 2018, over one-quarter of all Black men aged 25–29 fell into this category. But sometimes, even a completed degree is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Brooklyn College offers a cautionary tale of what happens when community colleges lower their academic standards to increase their graduation rates, particularly of their Black and Latino students. To counter the adverse consequences of accepting these weakly prepared students, Brooklyn College initiated a policy to counsel faculty members who are responsible for the less than satisfactory grades these transfer students receive. While well intentioned, this initiative will undermine faculty morale and the value of the degrees awarded, with questionable benefits for the intended beneficiaries.

Impact of Lowering Community College Standards

Like community colleges nationwide, The City University New York (CUNY) had skills requirements that students were required to master before taking credit-bearing courses. The mathematics requirement in particular created a hurdle that resulted in associate’s degree completion rates falling below 20 percent. CUNY responded by setting up the CUNY Start program. Instead of entering students taking their remediation courses taught by mathematics professors, they could enroll in a pre-college intensive remediation program taught by learning specialists. CUNY Start pass rates were more than double those in the college’s traditional remediation classes. In addition, community colleges began an extensive counseling program (ASAP) that guided students more effectively through the college, increasing graduation rates and transfers to senior colleges.

Despite these successes, the additional costs of these programs led CUNY to end all remediation requirements, so that students with skill deficiencies could immediately enter credit-bearing courses. Now an associate’s degree could be completed without a student having demonstrated even a minimum standard of foundational abilities, especially math skills.

On the surface, there was some justification for abandoning up-front remediation. Despite enrolling twice the share of students with a GED rather than a four-year high school degree, for-profit postsecondary institutions have substantially higher two-year graduation rates than community colleges as a result doing exactly what CUNY has done: ending the front-loading of remediation.

There are important differences, however. The more responsible for-profits integrate the necessary skills back into their occupational programs so that their students can meet employment and certification requirements. By contrast, CUNY community colleges encourage their students to enroll in the transfer-friendly liberal arts track, which has few back-end skill requirements. Their occupational programs have almost no employment services. As a result, whereas the vast majority of for-profit graduates enter industries with job skills, the vast majority of CUNY community college graduates transfer to senior colleges such as Brooklyn, where their skill deficits make them vulnerable.

Each senior college has its own requirements for transfer students. Brooklyn has chosen to have lower minimum requirements and higher acceptance rates than a number of other senior colleges, which enables many weakly prepared students to gain admission.

In the past, lowering standards did not help students. In the 1990s, the University of Michigan lowered its admission requirements in order to enroll more Black and Latino students; this had a disastrous impact on average performance. For the entering class of 1999, 48 percent of Black students were on academic probation at some point, and the average GPA was 2.43, whereas three-quarters of White students had a GPA of at least 3.06. Despite efforts to improve the situation, for the entering class of 2003—the last year for which two years of student performance data was available—the average Black student’s GPA did rise to 2.63; but still, 46 percent had been on academic probation. Odds are that at least part of the reason for poor student outcomes at Brooklyn College is its admissions policy for transfer students.

The Ineffectiveness of Changing Grading Policies

On top of lacking skills going in, there are now reasons to believe students won’t receive the rigorous education they paid for when they get to a four-year degree program.

In announcing its new anti-racist agenda, Brooklyn college stated the following:

We have recently raised funds to offer professional development to faculty in classes with the highest racial disparities in outcomes and the highest D/F/W rates. Going forward, I will also … undertake a comprehensive analysis of the admissions, retention rates, and graduation rates of Black students and other students of color by program to identify racial disparities and develop plans to eliminate them.… This fall, the Provost’s office and the Center for Teaching and Learning will offer professional development for faculty to understand the experience of students of color in their classes, especially where there are racially disparate outcomes by course.

There are many problems with this approach. For many faculty members, the inclination would be to just give higher marks so that fewer students will receive poor grades. After all, Brooklyn College faculty members, except those who run labs or have training programs, have a limited relationship to the campus. Even before the pandemic, faculty members had only two days of teaching responsibility and increasingly taught through distance learning or through hybrids where faculty are only present for half the scheduled time, meeting one instead of two days each week. Many don't have time to engage in extra development training.

Increasing grades is one of their few options, because most faculty aren't able to change the material they teach to accommodate students who come in with fewer skills. While faculty may present some independent material in their classes and on their exams, many courses are overwhelmingly dominated by the supplements and test banks supplied by textbook publishers. This is where faculty members obtain the PowerPoints they use, the sample questions they offer their students, and the multiple choice exams they will give.

Problematic Benefits

It is certainly possible that grade inflation will enable many of these weakly prepared students to gain a four-year degree. However, coming from a weaker CUNY college, with a very low GPA and likely being a lower-earning major, the majority of these graduates should expect earnings that place them in the lowest quartile among four-year college graduates. The usual weekly earnings of a Black men, Latino men, and Latinas with a four-year degree (BA) at the 25th earnings percentile is lower than the median earnings of those with some college or an associate’s degree (SCA). Those with certification and licensing earn even more. This suggests that if you end up in the lowest quartile of bachelor’s degree earnings, struggling to gain a four-year degree might not be as financially beneficial as hoped for.

The potential benefits from pursuing a four-year degree are reduced still further when considering student loan indebtedness. To better their weak employment situations, many Black students enroll in graduate programs. Indeed, 47 percent of Black four-year graduates, compared to 38 percent of White graduates, enroll in graduate programs within four years. At the time students receive their four-year degrees, Black borrowers have an average debt of $7,400 more than White borrowers. After including graduate student loans, however, the racial gap more than triples.

Two reasons are given for this dramatic increase. First, 40 percent of Black four-year college graduates pick up debt to pay for these courses, while only 22 percent of White graduates do the same. Second, 28 percent of Black four-year graduates enroll at for-profit schools, compared to less than 10 percent of their White peers. Black students also heavily enroll in programs at private colleges. Black students make these costly choices because, with low grades and coming from less prestigious colleges, most cannot gain acceptance at desired public programs. They are forced to go elsewhere and pay high tuitions, and many attend what the Department of Education identified as the “27 percent of master’s degree programs [that] resulted in higher debt than earnings.”

The Downside of the Four-Year College-for-All Vision

Brooklyn College administrators cannot be faulted for their efforts: it is part of the nationwide culture that refuses to see anything other than a focus on a four-year college goal. Once you have put students on this academic train, everything, including social promotion, must be done to enable them to reach their destination. This vision, however, ignores certificate programs and promoting employment for two-year occupational programs.

It is a shame, because there is little upside to the college’s new initiative, but substantial downside. Students are told that an education is a path to prosperity and then don’t receive the quality education they paid and went into substantial debt for. It is a shame because there has been much progress in shaping sub-baccalaureate programs to provide successful transitions into the job market for at-risk students who have only known school failure. Wouldn’t community colleges do better by developing effective pathways for these at-risk students than by undermining the integrity of senior colleges in a quest to maximize four-year graduation rates?

Robert Cherry is the Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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