Community colleges should help students keep hope alive

The Connecticut Mirror last week reported Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti’s belief, seconded by Gov. Dannel Malloy, that Connecticut’s community colleges might need to turn away people who, as Meotti put it, “have no ability to be successful in a college classroom.”  Our campuses are crowded, Commissioner Meotti said, and there is little funding expansion. So we should weed out the predestined failures to make space for those who can succeed.

This prescription calls to mind the adage attributed to journalist H.L. Mencken: “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong.”

As a professor at a Connecticut community college, I know that my colleagues understand, perhaps even better than Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Meotti, the dimensions of the problem that they presume to address. We see it at the start of every academic year-students who come to college unprepared to do college work. And we’ve come, reluctantly in my case, to accept that community colleges can’t quickly solve problems that accumulated during the first 13 years of education.

I also know that someone has to try, and that “someone” historically has been us. No effort in higher education is more important.

After I read the commissioner’s remarks, though, I came up with a bold plan to deal with the problem that he perceives: Simply post a sign over the entrance to every urban high school in the state that reads, “ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.”

I’m assuming that, since Dante Alighieri has been dead for more than six centuries now, his inscription over the Gates to Hell is part of the public domain. It also captures perfectly the logic of failure as destiny. We know, after all, that 75 percent of our students arrive unable to do college-level work in math, English, or both. We also know that deficiency rates are highest in the state’s cities. Why permit these young people to build hope for four years, receive high-school diplomas, and then have the doors shut in their faces? ‘Tis kinder, surely, to discourage them from wasting time on an effort that was doomed from the start. Plus, we would drive down enrollments, saving money on teacher salaries and building maintenance.

We could even close our urban high schools altogether. No schools would mean no teachers, no maintenance, and even more savings. Why, especially in a time of mandatory austerity, spend anything at all on those who probably will fail anyway?

Because none of us is born to fail.

We who work at community colleges have seen students who may have seemed likely to fail by available measures, and yet who have succeeded-whether the measure of success is graduation, a transfer to a four-year institution, a promotion made possible by success in a specific course, or simply the satisfaction that comes with learning something new. We have seen, by the hundreds, students succeed in ways that crude budget analysis can’t capture. I refer to the students who needed six or seven years to get their associate’s degrees because they had to complete multiple levels of developmental English and math to get to college-level work, because they also had to work full-time, and because they therefore had neither the time nor the money to take more than one or two courses in a semester.

These are success stories of students who, in hard times and by the numbers, might never have gotten a chance.

Community colleges face tough choices. Enrollment at my college must remain substantially flat until we can afford to hire more full-time faculty, which seems unlikely at least into the mid-range future. “Ability to benefit” is no longer an abstract phrase to kick around in our idle time.

We need to craft plans that allow us to achieve our mission within available resources. As we make hard decisions, however, we must interpret that mission as generously and broadly as possible. And we must focus on maintaining a success rate that, if properly defined, is quite admirable. Above all, we must view our students as likely successes, by their own definitions, and not as the predestined failures of arid analysis and crude quantification.

Let’s refrain from talk of destiny and failure, educators and politicians alike. Then all of us can turn our attention to keeping hope alive, which is an effort that enriches everyone who undertakes it.

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