Dowd: CCs offer shot at social mobility

Community colleges often are “the one chance a person has for gaining social mobility,” says Alicia Dowd, co-director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education, in a Huffington Post interview.

The idea that anyone can get ahead by hard work and smarts is important in the American psyche. Never mind that most students who start at a community college don’t finish and don’t end up with a degree or certificate. There’s a chance you’ll make it, it’s relatively cheap (compared to other colleges) and you don’t have to quit your job, move away from home, or be 18 years old to enroll there. Community colleges are a life raft for poor students and students who need a second (or third) chance to get an education or job skills.

Budget problems make it hard for students to get into the classes they need — or get the counseling they need to figure out how to complete a degree, Dowd tells interviewer Matthew Lynch.

Completion is a complex issue, because not all students want to earn certificates or degrees, she says.

The students who complete degrees tend to be those who are savvy about enrolling in the right courses, self-directed, resilient, and well supported financially and emotionally by their parents, families or significant others.

. . . One thing that’s being done is to create more detailed data bases of student academic progress to see which students are truly being lost from community colleges (and higher education more generally) and which are “stopping out” or “swirling” for good reasons, for example taking a higher paying job or taking classes at another college closer to their home.

New initiatives try to hold “colleges accountable for doing a better job in serving the students who do want to earn degrees and credentials,” Dowd says.  Financial aid, matriculation and transfer policies are being redesigned.

Community college . . .  should use the new, detailed data systems that are being built up in many states to tell their success stories better as wells to identify the gatekeeper courses that are blocking student progress.

Another strategy is to redefine completion in terms of short-term, modularized, or “stacked” credentials that students can build on over a career span of lifelong learning.

The college completion agenda “will generate real and equitable change only if it leads to improvements in the quality of education,” concludes Dowd. That will require more funds for “experimenting with new teaching and curricular strategies, learning from successes and failures, and participating in professional networks to evaluate and improve on new ideas.”