I’m not supposed to say this. I think Montgomery College students should complete an Associate’s degree as well as a Bachelor’s degree and definitely a Master’s. You’d think this would be a good thing to want for my students, right? Wrong. When I hear that a student who will be graduating from MC won’t be continuing his or her academic career toward a BA, I get disappointed. Yesterday I shared my disappointment with some colleagues and got very interesting responses. One colleague told me I was not in agreement with MC’s completion agenda. Another said I sounded like Mr. Obama who considers community colleges mere stepping stones not educational experiences in their own right. And still another colleague said I was disregarding any number of reasons students attend a two-year college. It was as if wanting more for students beyond MC was the worst possible thing to say, and this absolutely boggles my mind.
In July 2010, President Obama set a goal: “By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” To achieve this goal, he put his support behind community colleges, calling them “an essential part of our recovery in the present — and our prosperity in the future.” All community college professors beamed at the idea that the President of the United States was finally acknowledging the work we do as relevant, important, and meaningful to strengthening the economy of the nation. That is until he said this about jobs: “We will not fill those jobs — or even keep those jobs here in America — without the training offered by community colleges.” Excuse me, what training do we offer, Mr. President? His response: “training to become a medical technician, or a health IT worker, or a lab specialist, or a nurse. In fact, 59 percent of all new nurses come from community colleges. This is training to install solar panels and build those wind turbines we were talking about and develop a smarter electricity grid.” It may have been these illustrations that lost some of us.
It seems the president thinks of community colleges as vocational-technical centers not fuller institutions that offer more kinds of classes that include the arts and humanities areas. The president is not alone. Many Americans still think two-year colleges are places to go for certificates in technical skills, which is fine, because we offer certificates for technical programs, but we also offer many other courses that concentrate toward transfer credits and/or degrees. It’s the degree part that’s tricky here too. The president called on community colleges to commit to a completion agenda that would encourage more of our students to complete their two years with a degree or certificate rather than finish two years and transfer to a four-year school for the BA. Transferring can be problematic toward assessing completion because two-year colleges have no real system for knowing whether or not the transfer student completed his or her Bachelor’s degree. What we can know with certainty is that the student completed an Associate’s — a form of completion we can quantify.
Last fall, at our opening meeting, the college president and the Dean of Humanities spoke to the faculty about completion. This led to a big debate over defining “completion.” Our students complete in many different ways — some transfer, some get degrees, some get certificates, and others want only to complete a few courses — and many students have their own definition of completion (i.e. the senior citizen who takes art classes but doesn’t necessarily want a degree). The debates lasted for hours and never really went anywhere — after all, we are academics who can tease out the many tangles of any issue but the teasing out often leads to more tangles — but as an institution we were in agreement with the completion agenda, whatever it was.
In Novemver 2010, MC’s President, Dr. DeRionne Pollard, blogged about the community college’s completion agenda, essentially wondering out loud what such an agenda would look like. She admitted that we would need to “incentivize completion for our students” and asked “How do we get more students through?” She called for a “courageous conversation” between the MC community, the local community, and the community of colleges in Maryland at large. In February 2011, the Montgomery College Board of Trustees adopted The College Completion Challenge. The resolution includes these points and more:
- We believe in every student’s potential and responsibility to succeed—and that an engaged student is more likely to persist in college.
- We believe that community colleges are the gateways to the middle class and beyond for millions of Americans.
- We commit to acting on facts to make positive changes in the interest of student success and college completion.
- We ask every trustee, administrator, faculty member, counselor, advisor, financial aid officer, staff member, and student organization to examine current practices, to identify ways to help students understand the added value of degrees and certifications, and to help them progress toward their goals.
I’m a college professor. Of course I believe engaged students are more likely to succeed; of course I believe a college education is a gateway to the middle class; everyday I commit myself to student success; and with all my degrees I personally embody the value that earning a college degree is a worthy goal. Why did I need a resolution to outline for me the values that are already at my core? Also I understand that the completion agenda means we should focus on helping our students stay the course at MC, get a degree here before moving onto another program, but does that mean we shouldn’t encourage completion as well as continuation? When I finished my undergraduate degree, I was congratulated and then encouraged to go even further, and I did. Does the completion agenda mean we can’t encourage students to finish at MC and achieve even more? And why is the completion agenda itself such a contentious issue that I can’t say aloud how disappointing it is when I see a student who succeeded and completed at MC not continue toward another degree? What am I missing here?