Monday, October 10, 2016

Real College

A recent request on the NACAC exchange asked about information for a student – certainly not unusual.  Unfortunately, the other thing that wasn’t unusual was the following: “She is not interested in community college programs nor exterior programs where she is not actually admitted to a university, in other words, she want to experience being as close to a normal college student as possible.” 

For any other fans of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, let’s pretend I am wearing the big furry hat, and this is a decree forever going forward.

Community college is college.  It is real college.  It is, based on the fact that community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education by quite a bit, the most normal college.   
Please understand, my feelings are not hurt when people say that the institutions that I have worked with or at for my entire career are illegitimate, or at least, as with this questioner, a lesser, other, option.  I have thick skin (and waist, and skull…).  The reason that it’s important for me to respond here is because comments in the vein of separating community colleges as “other” in conversations of higher education are generally dismissive of the students enrolled at them, the faculty that teach at them, and the administrators and staff who make them work.  This creates several problems.  

First, it actively discourages students who would be excited to begin their higher education experience with a more local and in many cases, more supportive experience by painting it as a negative option.  It is not the best option for everyone,, but neither is an Ivy League school.   By not portraying it as an experience of equivalent stature, it damages those students who do not have my thick skin.  Students who are on the fringes of higher education for any of a thousand reasons often find a safe place to become the academic stars that they were not in high school, or an affordable place to gain traction in an environment that is increasingly expensive.  No one is confusing Harvard and LaGuardia Community College, but that goes both for international reputation and for access for students who are generally disenfranchised by a system based on elitism, wealth, and privilege.  I’m scoring that 1-1. 

Second, students who could be preparing for the transfer process from high school are not, because they, their parents, and their counselors are not acknowledging that option early enough.  NACAC is completely deficient in the transfer conversation (more on that soon), and NACAC is the single biggest high school counselor connection to higher education.  AACRAO has been having a transfer conference for better than a decade, but it tends to focus on the technical aspects of the process (it is an organization for registrars), and it lacks the high school counselors.  Even NYSTAA, the New York State Transfer & Articulation Association, has suffered such a disconnect between segments of the process (four-year admissions and two-year advising) in recent years that specific workshops were included in the annual conference last may to reintroduce the membership to each other (full disclosure, I presented them).  There is very little by way of practical introduction as to how to incorporate transfer planning for students until they are knee-deep in the process, and many problems that could have been avoided are now front and center. 

I understand that the community college experience is not what most students want, or what most counselors or parents want for their students.  Unfortunately, this is due in large part to misunderstandings about those institutions and the students they serve, and due in largest part to incredibly poor PR.  Open access does not mean that every student at the institution is a poor student – many are outstanding academic students.  Affordable does not mean low value – it simply means lower cost. (If it makes you feel better to pay more, just pretend you’re an out of state resident or international student.  Let me know if the higher rates increase your value.) The only portrayals of community colleges in media are negative or comic relief.  Unfortunately, these portrayals, often combined with parent, family, and counselor reinforcement, take on great power in the minds of students who would and could be much better served by starting in the community college.  It also weakens the efforts of those institutions and of the students they serve. 

Unfortunately, the “otherness” of community colleges in these conversations also reinforce the “otherness” of their students.  This is not a small thing, as no other segment of higher education enrolls as many students of color or as many students of low-socioeconomic status.  These students use the community college as a legitimate entry point to higher ed and all that that encompasses.  They often face a steep uphill climb to completion, for a variety of reasons, but it creates an even steeper incline when they have to battle a lack of advice or information, or worse, denigration for their institution of choice. 


Community colleges have courses, credits, registrars, bursars, financial aid, liberal arts, arts, and technical training, Ph.D.-bearing faculty, and students with aspirations and accomplishments both.  Some have dorms, some have intercollegiate sports.  They enroll nearly 8 million students, almost half of the total undergraduate population of the country.  Community colleges are college, for better or worse, with all that entails, except the pretension.   Of that, they could use a bit more. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

NACAC 2016 – The thank yous.

I recently spent four very exciting, informative, collegial, and occasionally troubling days at the NACAC 2016 Conference in Columbus, OH.  Starting with the great stuff, and working towards the stuff where there is great potential (in the next post):

I remain floored by how I got there to begin with.  NACAC is not generally considered something for or by people of my ilk (transfer out at the community colleges), so my involvement has been pretty much limited to the exchange and the regional affiliate, NYSACAC – that that involvement started when I was in four-year enrollment management, not because of my current role.  Still, despite that fairly limited engagement (length of emails notwithstanding), when Steve Peifer discovered that I wasn’t attending and that to do so was budgetarily unattainable, he asked if he could seek aid on the exchange.  Here is my actual and unaltered response:

I’ve had people offer to pay me to stay home before, so that would be a change.  Go for it, I’m shameless.  I’m dying to see the framing anyway – Dear membership:  It has come to my attention that we will be shy a pretentious windbag at the coming conference, throwing our balance dangerously out of whack between that group, the pretentious but quiet, the non-pretentious windbags, and the category everyone assumes that they are part of.  For just a dollar a day (averaged over the next thousand days or so, payable up front), you can sponsor this opinionated blowhard for your own amusement or as revenge on an enemy who will be attending.  Act now!

Clearly, I did not anticipate what was to come.  In days, and before I had actually remembered to ask for permission to go, Adam Ingersoll of Compass Education Group, Akil Bello and James Murphy of Princeton Review, and Cigus Vanni, recently retired HS counselor from NJ and current consultant, had booked my flight, registration, and paid for the hotel.  Cate Armstrong of Academic Services in CO also contributed, buying a wonderful dinner for Steve and myself.  Arun Ponnusamy of Collegewise made sure I didn’t pay for drinks for two straight nights, and more importantly, introduced me to incredible people and conversations.  To all of these individuals, and to all of those who thanked me for my meager contributions over the last few years, I cannot express enough gratitude.  If nothing else were to come from this, getting to meet the force of nature that is Marie Bigham; verifying that Jon Boeckenstedt is a real person, and not just a computer or magician; connecting with ACCEPT: Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today; reconnecting with old friends, connecting in new ways with more recent ones, and creating new ones – makes this one of the more remarkable conferences I’ve ever been to.  So, thank you. 

And Steve, you’re the man. 

(By the way - if you want to have your emotions treated like Silly Putty for a few hundred pages, read his book.  When I say "I laughed, I cried," I mean it, often on the same page, and usually to the acute discomfort of whomever was riding next to me on the train into work.)

I’m hoping to start contributing with my next post, I promise.   

An Introduction to Transfer Rants (and Other Thoughts on Higher Education)

So, this is my contribution to the blogosphere, to the discourse on higher education issues, and to the sanity of my colleagues in NYSTAA, NACAC, and elsewhere, whose poor, unsuspecting inboxes have been often been weighed down with my longwinded responses, rants, and clever witticisms (or snark, depending on your personal bent of humor).  I’m hoping that by creating this blog, I can provide a perspective on issues that are critically important to our nation and to an enormous number of underserved students.  Or at least, amuse myself and give myself a virtual soapbox to blather from.  Either way, I’m good. 

And let’s get this out of the way early – the views expressed here are my own, and not those of my employer.  I’m going to work very hard not to do anything that will embarrass my bosses, college, or system (I do have a mortgage and three kids, including twin toddlers, so I need to remain gainfully employed for the next 75-100 years).  It would probably be smarter to do this anonymously (I’m a huge fan of Dean Dad Matt Reed from InsideHigherED, who wrote that way for a very long time), but part of the impetus for this blog would make that impossible to do, I think.  Steve Peifer (the Director of College Counseling at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach and NACAC guru) planted the seed for a blog probably a year ago, and in the year and a half that I’ve been at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY, I find myself increasingly answering NACAC Exchange questions and concerns with a perspective that seems to be absent, that of the transfer student/transfer out advisor.  Rather than stay with email or Facebook posts, I thought I’d listen to Steve and give myself a bit more room to expound.  So, blame Steve.  In any event, I’m not sure how secret it would be if I mysteriously vanished from the Exchange except to post links to the Transfer Guy’s Blog. 

As the title would indicate, the primary lens that I look at things through is that of the transfer student, really, the community college transfer student.  The reason for that is luck, mainly.  After teaching for a few years in high school, I realized (with the help of not getting tenure, twice), that it was not the career for me.  I was a working at the time as a college football coach, which, for whatever it lacked in free time or sleep, it also lacked in pay, so I sought and got a job in the admissions office.  I walked in, and the transition was essentially – “Great, a new guy!  New guy, you’re on transfers.” 

What did I know about transfers? Sadly, about as much as most people, including many people in and around higher education, the students who will have to go through it, and the parents hoping to shepherd their students through college to success (and out of their houses) – that is to say, not much.  I got to learn by immersion.  That first job was about recruiting and enrolling transfer students, as were subsequent jobs and educational processes, and now I’m on the other side of the coin, helping students prepare for transfer from the community college.  Certain things have become clear to me over that time. 

First, there were some core questions that students have, regardless of background, ability, or academic interest: Which credits will transfer?  When will I be done? How much will this cost?  There is no one more practical than a transfer student.  Conversely, some of their assumptions are so founded in the myths of higher education that I call it the Hogwarts Approach – they think that credits will magically transfer, or financial aid will magically appear, or that the name of the institution will invoke such immediate job market responses that any loan amount is worth it.  They’re practical, but often in a very na├»ve way.

Second, there are three primary ideas/philosophies that I rely on in thinking about, addressing, and talking about community colleges and transfer. 

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. 
- President Lyndon B. Johnson
Commencement Address at Howard University   
June 4, 1965

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear…If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained, there will be a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
- Sun Tzu
The Art of War
5th century BCE

Higher Education is arbitrary, exclusionary, inherently contrary to common sense and logic, and largely unknowable for most of our students as they enter the community college.
-Me.  Probably like two years ago. 

Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates are enrolled at community colleges, and it’s far more normal at this point to have credits from multiple institutions than not.  In CUNY, the majority of students are transfer students.  And yet, it’s often very overlooked in admissions, credit review, financial aid, and any and every practical aspect of the degree seeking process. In fact, while there is exhaustive research on community colleges and community college students as contributors to the success and failing of those students in transfer, the receiving institution gets an almost complete pass – it’s the variable least often discussed.  Unfortunately, the students most harmed are also frequently the most lacking in the social and cultural capital needed to challenge the status quo.  And as that first quote indicates, I think there are some substantial impacts beyond simple educational issues. As to the second quote, transfer is often a war between student and/or sending institution and the receiving institution, so Sun Tzu struck me as appropriate.  More importantly, however, if students do not understand why they are in what they are in, if they do not understand the schools at which they enroll, then their chances of graduating drop precipitously.  They need to understand both in order to be successful. 

And the last quote is the driving philosophy of my office and staff’s interactions with students.  We (higher ed) make this stuff up as we go – there’s no reason our students should get it.  Our job is to help them. 


All of this is to say, transfer students, and those who work with them the most, need a voice in this process.  There are thousands of great people doing great work in this area, and there are a lot of ways to approach it.  I’ll throw in my two cents on a number of issues (I have a compulsive need to give my opinion), but the goal will be to contribute to closing the gap in this area.  Fingers crossed.