Pima faces accreditation loss for remedial policy

Threatened with losing accreditation, Pima Community College is expected to open admission to all students, reversing a policy that sent very poorly prepared students to alternative programs. Accreditors also criticized the Arizona college’s leadership problems, including mismanagement by past and present administrators, a “culture of fear” and an allegedly absentee governing board,  reports Inside Higher Ed. In addition, Roy Flores, Pima’s former chancellor, has been accused of sexual harassment.

Eager for Pima to become a four-year college, Flores pushed through tighter admissions standards, arguing that students who test below the seventh grade in reading and math “have little chance of succeeding in a college environment,” Only 5 percent of students in remedial classes advance to college-level work, Flores wrote in the Arizona Star.

The accreditation team said that caused Pima to fail an accreditation test: The “institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.”

“The college’s decision to change its admissions policy despite community opposition conflicts with its stated mission of developing the community through learning,” wrote Sylvia Manning, the commission’s president, “and demonstrates a lack of understanding of its role in serving the public good in its community.”

In 2011, Pima began turning away students who scored poorly on a placement test, ACT’s COMPASS. The number of full-time remedial students declined by 30 percent that year, leading to a 28 percent cut in faculty slots.

The college’s leadership has recommended that the new admissions standards be dropped.

Grit is good, but cognition comes first

Character traits such as “grit” are important, but don’t ignore cognition, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor and author of Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. “Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or a relationship,” he writes in Ed Week. It’s not just reading and math scores or the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed argues for shifting our focus from academic programs to “the development of qualities of character or personality, like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility,” writes Rose. But many of these “character” qualities fall within the “truer, richer notion of cognition.”

 Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state, which is a demanding cognitive activity. Flexibility requires a weighing of options and decisionmaking.

Cognitive and non-cognitive learning are entwined in community college programs Rose observed in fashion and diesel technology.

 As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing, and help others. You could be, by inclination, the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, your tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive factors to admit “diamonds in the rough,” reports Inside Higher Ed. But, so far, high school grades are the best predictor of college performance. And it helps to have test scores to account for grade inflation.

Measuring non-cognitive skills is difficult, but not impossible, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.

Skip the admissions game

Does it matter where you go to college? In a New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion, Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, argues that most students should skip the admissions game and start their higher education at a high-quality community college. After all, only the top students have any chance of attending an elite college, Carey points out. Four out of five students attend colleges that are easy to get into and not well resourced. Some do a much better job than others of teaching students and getting them to a degree.

The good news is that a lot of information has become available over the last 10 years that sheds new light on the quality of non-elite colleges. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement, for example, identifies public two-year institutions that are unusually good at employing the teaching practices that research show lead to learning and graduation. Most community colleges participate and you can look up the results at www.ccsse.org.

It turns out that the best community colleges do a better job than the average elite research university at teaching freshman and sophomores.

To a great extent, success or failure in college depends on the student’s academic preparation, motivation and ability to make college a priority. College-ready, full-time students are likely to do well. Poorly prepared students, especially those with job and family responsibilities, are not. I think the risk of failure is higher at community college, but the costs are much lower.